Information is never free. That is particularly true under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Although designed to facilitate government transparency, those seeking to obtain information under FOIA often find it used as a shield against disclosure and can be forced to pay substantial sums for the documents they eventually receive. The law itself provides for reduced fees for some types of organizations, including “educational institutions.” Today, in Sack v. U.S. Dept. of Defense, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit held that this means students seeking to use FOIA are eligible for reduced fees as well.
Here is how Judge Brett Kavanaugh summarized his decision for the court:
The Government charges fees to process FOIA requests. Those fees can be significant – in this case about $900 – and can deter or prevent citizens from making FOIA requests.
By statute, educational institutions are eligible for reduced fees when they make FOIA requests. The Government has long determined that teachers who make FOIA requests are eligible for those reduced fees because teachers are part of an educational institution. But at the same time, the Government has determined that students who make FOIA requests are not eligible for those reduced fees because they are supposedly not part of an educational institution.
We disagree with the Government’s slicing of the term “educational institution.” If teachers can qualify for reduced fees, so can students. Students who make FOIA requests to further their coursework or other school-sponsored activities are eligible for reduced fees under FOIA because students, like teachers, are part of an educational institution. The student involved in this case, Kathryn Sack, therefore is eligible for reduced fees for her FOIA requests. We reverse the contrary judgment of the District Court on that question, and affirm in all other respects.