Student Journalists Sue Community College For Ridiculously High Fees On Open Records Request

from the avoiding-open-records dept

With various open records and freedom of information laws, many government organizations don't like the fact that they may have to reveal things that can be seen as embarrassing. Sometimes they try to get around this simply by refusing to disclose things they're legally obliged to, but that can backfire. So a sneakier way of hiding is to simply claim that the "cost" associated with retrieving the requested information is quite high. Most open records laws allow the agency to pass on any reasonable costs (and usually there are ways to get exemptions from those fees).

However, it appears that the student journalists at Johnson County Community College in Kansas were pretty shocked when the university told the student paper that it would cost $24,130.72 to provide staff emails and documents requested by the students. In a related issue, a request was made for all emails between two individuals over a seven month period... and the college responded that it would cost $47,426 to fulfill the request. After thinking that seemed crazy, the journalists resubmitted the request, but asked for just the emails between those two individuals for a single day, chosen at random, along with a list of all the open records requests the school had received... and was told that request would cost $23,630.96. So, then the journalists sent another request dropping the open records list, and just choosing a single day (one day after the one in the previous request) and was told to get just those emails it would cost $9,745.96... even though the total number of emails was around 20.

The school claims that it would cost that much because they'd have to spend $5,250 to contract with an outside agency for 25 hours of work to get the emails. The students (along with the Student Press Law Center) believe that it's really about a college simply putting forth bogus fees to avoid having to comply with open records requests. Thus, they're now suing the college for failing to obey the Kansas Open Records Act, which requires only reasonable fees to retrieve the information requested.


Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

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    David Liu (profile), Oct 12th, 2011 @ 4:10am

    Whoa, if it costs an IT admin several ten thousands of dollars just to retrieve a bunch of emails, either you're doing it terribly wrong, or someone's being scammed (and you're doing it terribly wrong).

     

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      Josh in CharlotteNC (profile), Oct 12th, 2011 @ 5:40am

      Re:

      Both. Definitely both.

      The school claims that it would cost that much because they'd have to spend $5,250 to contract with an outside agency for 25 hours of work to get the emails.

      $210 per hour? Seriously? For standard email admin duties?

      That's over 5 times what I make per hour in information security at a major bank.

       

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        zoredache, Oct 12th, 2011 @ 2:34pm

        Re: Re:

        } That's over 5 times what I make per hour in information security at a major bank.

        That is on the high end, I wonder if it is partly includes coverage liability insurance or incase the people decide to sue the consultants as well.

         

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    Yogi, Oct 12th, 2011 @ 4:23am

    Hire me!

    I would be perfectly willing to retrieve those emails at the aforementioned price + a 10% fee due to the difficulty of finding specific emails from a specific date in a mail folder using the in-built search function of the email program.I estimate at least 48 hours of laughing my butt off.

    Look, if the administrators are this stupid, how good is this college anyway??

     

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      Anonymous Howard, Cowering, Oct 12th, 2011 @ 8:43am

      Re: Yogi #2 - Hire me!

      Umm, it's Johnson County. That means it's the best that daddy's money can buy!

       

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    AJ, Oct 12th, 2011 @ 4:27am

    If it takes a school 47 tho to look up emails between two people that work for the school, I would seriously start thinking about the competency of that institution.

    Your average user can log in, sort by sender, and dump the emails to a file in less than a minute. IT should be able to do it at least just as fast, and for anyone on the network.

    I hope the students win this one...

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Oct 12th, 2011 @ 4:36am

    I hope they go out of biz

     

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    abc gum, Oct 12th, 2011 @ 4:43am

    Wonder what they are hiding.

     

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    Spaceboy (profile), Oct 12th, 2011 @ 4:58am

    Someone should file an information request on how they got to the original figure...

     

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    Rikuo (profile), Oct 12th, 2011 @ 5:15am

    1. Open web browser, browse to college email server.
    2. Type in username and password
    3. Search by date/name/whatever.
    4. Copy and paste/print off emails at around 20c per b/w page.

    If we take that 20c and do 47,426 divided by 0.2
    we get a grand total of 237,130 pages!

    Yep, some of the college professors and faculty MUST have hundreds of thousands of pages of emails in their inbox, in order for this to make sense.

     

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      Rikuo (profile), Oct 12th, 2011 @ 5:18am

      Re:

      Printer paper typically comes in at 500 sheets per pack. That amount of pages would take 474.26 packs. Let's assume they're selling for $5 a pack.
      5 x 474.26 = $2,371.30. Huh...way short of the original forty seven thousand dollars.

       

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        Transbot9, Oct 12th, 2011 @ 6:04am

        Re: Re:

        Many colleges have limits on how much a student can have printed per semester, or a fee per page. One I went to just had copier fees, since printer fees were essentually built into the tuition.

         

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        Anonymous Coward, Oct 12th, 2011 @ 7:07am

        Re: Re:

        The ink that cost more than gold is the real factor :)

         

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    Anonymous Coward, Oct 12th, 2011 @ 5:30am

    They should have had multiple people requesting the same thing over a month, to catch them giving completely different numbers at random for the same things.

     

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    That Anonymous Coward (profile), Oct 12th, 2011 @ 5:44am

    More incidental proof proving my theory that power seems to cause what appears to be brain damage in people.

    So I am guessing there are some deep dark secrets at this school, and releasing these records would be the tip of the iceberg.

    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.

    Yep there can not be anything bad in there... *blink*

    They need an outside firm to access their backup tapes, is this standard in the industry now?

    You would think that someone would have written some software for public institutions that uses all of the technology we have now to facilitate records requests to make sure they are always easily available. But then that goes against the idea of people in power being responsible.

     

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    NullOp, Oct 12th, 2011 @ 6:06am

    Suit

    Now THIS is the right thing to do! Sue 'em and sue 'em til they puke!!! And sue each and every individual personally! It's time people realize bad and unfair systems exist because THEY allow them to exist!

     

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    Cloksin (profile), Oct 12th, 2011 @ 6:18am

    Just ridiculous

    I'm a network admin, and about a year ago we had certain emails subpeonaed by the FBI, emails dating back over ten years, specific to one particular vendor, to and/or from anyone and everyone, past or present in the company that may have had communications with this vendor. It took me and one other admin a grand total of a day and a half to sort through our Exchange server and backup tapes and provide the FBI with every email they requested.

    Oh, and it didn't cost us a penny for paper or printer consumables, we delivered the emails on a DVD. Thousand's of dollars to perform this request? Yeah right, I WISH I made that much money. I wouldn't have to work any more.

     

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    Capitalist Lion Tamer (profile), Oct 12th, 2011 @ 6:30am

    Thus, they're now suing the college for failing to obey the Kansas Open Records Act, which requires only reasonable fees to retrieve the information requested.

    Reasonable fees are in the eye of the beholder (or in this case, the beholden[?]). Just ask the RIAA. It knows all about "reasonable fees" for infringement.

    (Maybe the RIAA is the "outside agency" the school is communicating with...)

     

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      iamtheky (profile), Oct 12th, 2011 @ 6:56am

      Re:

      Please tell me how you are comparing the punishment for a crime to the cost of a records request.

      That kind of logic is, to quote the trolls, freetarded. When you try and tie every wrongdoing back to that of the most gross offenders, you earn every bit of hyperbole that is returned.

       

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        Anonymous Coward, Oct 12th, 2011 @ 7:14am

        Re: Re:

        DS9 has the Pa'wraith have possessed you?

         

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        Capitalist Lion Tamer (profile), Oct 12th, 2011 @ 7:26am

        Re: Re:

        Please tell me how you are comparing the punishment for a crime to the cost of a records request.

        This is how I'm comparing them: both are exorbitantly high, approaching "unrealistic," if not completely surpassing it.

        x unrealistic fee = x unrealistic fee

        I'll break it down even further: both the school and the RIAA think the word "reasonable" means "an incredibly large amount."

        That's how I'm doing that.

         

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          Atkray (profile), Oct 12th, 2011 @ 8:05am

          Re: Re: Re:

          ^^^
          This

           

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          iamtheky (profile), Oct 12th, 2011 @ 9:20am

          Re: Re: Re:

          x unrealistic fee = x unrealistic fee

          except one is a fee and one is a judgement. The RIAA is demanding "fees for downloading" that contention only fuels the opposition.

          "x Settlement offer" in no way equals "x unrealistic required fee"

           

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            iamtheky (profile), Oct 12th, 2011 @ 9:22am

            Re: Re: Re: Re:

            *under threat of judgement, rather.

             

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            MrWilson, Oct 12th, 2011 @ 12:29pm

            Re: Re: Re: Re:

            It's just semantics to argue over which word you use to refer to the money that each entity wants to receive in each scenario.

            The extremely high valuation by the RIAA companies of their products is similar to the extremely high valuation by the college of its IT services. They're both high and unreasonable.

            It doesn't matter why they think they deserve to receive that much money - the comparison still stands because the absurd valuation is what is being compared.

             

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    jupiterkansas (profile), Oct 12th, 2011 @ 7:34am

    Johnson County Community College

    Just FYI, this is one of the biggest and richest community colleges in the nation. It obviously isn't incompetence, but a deliberate red tape cover up.

     

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    JKEVIN, Oct 12th, 2011 @ 8:10am

    BOFH...

    This is a BOFH episode just dying to be written!

    Are you listening, Simon?

     

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    Aerilus, Oct 12th, 2011 @ 1:16pm

    The formula they used to create a price isn't random they simply called up the first lawyer in the phone book and asked them how much it would cost to prosecute an open records dispute over email it's not the college's fault that the lawyers gave them a different answer each time they asked maybe they had a one day sale or something.

     

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    zoredache, Oct 12th, 2011 @ 2:27pm

    records requests can be pretty expensive

    I believe some of you are under the impression that you would simply copy mail off the server and hand it over, but many requests don't work like that. You may have to do a restore from your backup or archive systems.

    The other expensive part for a school, is that you will probably have to pay someone to review every possible record for student names and so on to redact out all the information that cannot be shared legally. It does sound like their prices are a bit steep, but they are not insanely over-board.

     

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      Rikuo (profile), Oct 13th, 2011 @ 3:41am

      Re: records requests can be pretty expensive

      "believe some of you are under the impression that you would simply copy mail off the server and hand it over, but many requests don't work like that. You may have to do a restore from your backup or archive systems."

      -So popping in a backup tape costs thousands of dollars now?

      "The other expensive part for a school, is that you will probably have to pay someone to review every possible record for student names and so on to redact out all the information that cannot be shared legally. It does sound like their prices are a bit steep, but they are not insanely over-board."

      Reread the article
      "just choosing a single day (one day after the one in the previous request) and was told to get just those emails it would cost $9,745.96... even though the total number of emails was around 20."
      How can it cost almost 10 grand just to get at 20 emails? Even if you factor in your redaction costs...that's still far too steep.

       

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      Anonymous Coward, Oct 16th, 2011 @ 8:41pm

      Re: records requests can be pretty expensive

      No, they are insanely overboard. They include 16 hours for restoring the backups, 8 hours for each. OK, maybe they have really slow backups... but do they plan for the techs to pop in a tape and then stare at it for all day Monday while it restores, then pop in a tape Tuesday and stare at that one all day? (And then, of course, an hour of staring at the computer writing the records to a CD.) If they're paying techs $210 per hour, I would hope they would be a little more efficient than that. And then, after the system is restored, 8 hours to search one day's worth of emails between two people? That's an all-day job? And that 8 hours DOES NOT INCLUDE the human resources/legal time, those are listed seperately.

       

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