SPLC, student journalist sue Kan. community college over public records fees
College wants $24,000 to fill request
October 4, 2011
KANSAS — The Student Press Law Center and a college journalist filed a lawsuit Tuesday against Johnson County Community College in Kansas for excessive fees to release open records, including nearly $10,000 to produce one day’s worth of emails.
The college estimated a total of $24,130.72 to fulfill requests by the SPLC and former copy editor Marcus Clem for staff emails and documents related to other open records requests.
Attorney Christopher Grenz, of the Kansas City law firm Bryan Cave, who is handling the case pro bono as part of the SPLC’s attorney referral network, said the fees are “facially excessive.”
“They’re basically hanging a price tag on what should be public documents in order to keep those documents from being public,” Grenz said.
The current requests in the lawsuit have evolved from an original request by Rachel Kimbrough, current editor in chief at The Campus Ledger student newspaper at JCCC. Clem said Kimbrough was working on a story about the closing of the Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion and departure of program director Jason Rozelle.
According to the lawsuit, Kimbrough emailed Joseph Sopcich, executive vice president of administrative services, in March asking for all emails between Rozelle and Carmaletta Williams, the office’s executive director, between Aug. 1, 2010 and March 1, 2011. Mark Ferguson, JCCC legal counsel, replied in an email “there is a significant amount of time and expense associated with your request.”
The college sent another reply stating costs to produce emails for the seven-month span would be $47,426.
At the advice of the SPLC, Clem refined the request for emails between Rozelle and Williams for a single day chosen at random, Jan. 16, 2011. He also requested all emails in December 2010 between Rozelle and a professor, and for a list of all Kansas Open Records Act requests to the school and its responses for 2010-11.
Sopcich, who did not return a request for comment by press time, responded in May that it would cost $23,630.96 to fill the request.
Clem, who no longer works for The Campus Ledger, sent a third request alongside an identical request from the SPLC. It was similar to his previous request, except it requested emails from the following day, Jan. 17. The SPLC received a response from Sopcich in July detailing the costs, including a $9,745.96 projection for the one day of emails, which the school estimates totaled about 20 messages.
Contributing to that figure is $5,250 to contract an outside agency for 25 hours of work at $210 per hour while the information services department restores emails from a tape backup.
The school estimates $13,264.76 to produce the emails from December. The three requests also include a total of four hours of legal work at $250 per hour and $998 in photocopying costs for 4,990 pages at $.20 a page.
Clem said the paper was “prepared to pay strictly print publishing costs at the time” but “didn’t understand why they were charging that much just to retrieve the emails.”
Grenz said under the Kansas Open Records Act, the government can charge a “reasonable” fee to retrieve public records but called the school’s fee “ridiculous.”
Frank LoMonte, SPLC executive director, said the lawsuit highlights a growing trend of charging large fees to produce open records.
“Without knowing what’s going on behind the scenes, one of two things is clear — either the college is overcharging for these records in hopes that the students will shut up and go away, or it’s overcharging in hopes of turning the open-records act into a profit center,” LoMonte said. “We’re seeing this phenomenon all over the country, where agencies are ringing up these jackpot bills for records, and it seems like public watchdogs are being seen as an easy way for an agency in a budget crunch to turn a quick buck. Public records belong to the public, and there’s not supposed to be a mark-up so that agencies can make a windfall profit by selling the public’s own information back to us.”
With the lawsuit filed today, Grenz said the school has 21 days to respond.
“It could take some time to get through all this, which is unfortunate because this all started as a legitimate request for public records so the student journalist could write a report,” he said. “The longer this goes on, the more difficult it is for them to do their jobs.”
By Peter Velz, SPLC staff writer
© 2011 Student Press Law Center