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Opinion >  Editorial

Editorial: UI’s records fees close-minded

Want public records from the University of Idaho? Better have a credit card on hand – one with a high limit.

“From January to October this year, the university received 57 public records requests; 10 of those resulted in fees that ranged from $64 to nearly $90,000,” according to an article by Caitlin Tompkins and Sarah Steger, journalism students writing for the Murrow News Service.

Tom Blanchard, a retired history teacher, wanted to know more about campus murals depicting the hanging of Native Americans. That’ll be $18,078.11, the university replied.

John Bradbury, a retired judge, asked for extensive records about a professor. His was billed $89,717.80. He narrowed the request twice, and the bill was reduced to $4,000.

The Moscow-Pullman News asked for emails related to an alleged theft by football players at a campus store, and was hit with a $1,080 bill. The university reconsidered and lowered the price to $700. Still too pricey, so the newspaper came away empty, and so did its readers.

A law school student needed records for a thesis, and was charged $1,100.

If any of those requests were made eight miles to the west, Washington State University could seek reimbursement only for the price of making copies. Such is the difference in the two states’ public records laws.

Under Idaho’s Public Records Act, agencies can charge for the predicted time it would take to fulfill requests, if they exceed 100 pages or two hours of work. However, they are not required to do so.

But UI appears to take full advantage.

Also in Washington, those asking for records can look through them in person to narrow their requests. Not so in Idaho. You have to pay in advance, and hope you get what you wanted.

The high prices and inflexible rules serve as deterrents to citizens who want to view records compiled with their tax dollars. As news budgets shrink at media outlets, the price tag for UI records can push them out of reach.

Scholars may abandon their research, which is the last thing a university should want.

The records belong to the public. Agencies shouldn’t charge exorbitant fees that, in effect, makes individuals pay for them twice. Nor should rules serve the convenience of employees, rather than citizens.

At UI, the policy seems random. Bloomberg News Service wasn’t charged for its requests for employee contracts and a breakdown of the athletic department’s budget. A faculty salary request from a teacher’s union cost nothing.

Can’t pay $1,080? How about $700?

Public records shouldn’t be haggled over like items at a swap meet.

We realize the Idaho Legislature forces its agencies to run on tight budgets, but imposing exorbitant charges on people seeking public records defeats the purpose of the law.

The first sentence of the Idaho Public Records Law Manual makes that purpose clear: “Open government is the cornerstone of a free society.”

That’s free society, not fee society. The university could better serve the public by recognizing the difference.

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