The perennial FOIA Reform Masquerade Ball is again under way, with legislators attempting to dodge blustery requests to "cut in" by administration officials and similarly-motivated federal agencies. The dance usually ends with Congressional committee chairmen yanking needles from records and booting everyone out of the dancehall.
Meanwhile, limited headway is being made in another branch of the government, far from the muffled protests of overwhelming majorities who have been shouted down by parties of one. The DC Appeals Court has just ruled that the government must extend its FOIA fee discounts to students at educational institutions, rather than just to instructors and administration.
The Department of Defense has fought this the whole way. It wanted a clear-cut delineation between students and staff for reasons only it comprehends, as that would mean saddling those with fewer financial resources (students) with higher fees.
The decision starts out by noting that FOIA fees -- if high enough -- are an effective deterrent to requesters. It then goes on to examine the government's assertion that the category of "educational institution" does not include these institutions' student bodies.
We thus must decide whether the statutory term “educational institution” is properly read, as the Government reads it, to include teachers but exclude students from the category of preferred requesters who are eligible for reduced fees. We conclude that the Government’s reading is inconsistent with the statute. Indeed, we think the Government’s reading makes little sense at all.
It would be a strange reading of this broad and general statutory language – which draws no distinction between teachers and students – to exempt teachers from paying full FOIA fees but to force students with presumably fewer financial means to pay full freight.
The government -- in making its nonsensical argument that students are not part of educational institutions -- relies on two different pull quotes. One is from a statement Sen. Charles Leahy made way back in 1986 during his legislative push to amend the FOIA to reduce fees for schools.
“A request made by a professor or other member of the professional staff of an educational or noncommercial scientific institution should be presumed to have been made by the institution.”
The government has chosen to believe this excludes students. The court, however, points out that Leahy was actually expanding the definition from what was originally assumed: that only top-level representatives of education institutions (presidents, chairpersons, etc.) could benefit from the lowered fees. The amendment, as written, makes no delineation between staff and students, no matter what the government feels Leahy must have meant when he made that statement.
The second pull quote is from an OMB (Office of Management and Budget) FOIA guideline.
“A student who makes a request in furtherance of the completion of a course of instruction is carrying out an individual research goal and the request would not qualify” as a request made by an educational institution.
With this, you'd figure the DoD has a point. But it doesn't, as the court explains. There are questions that need to be answered and one of them is, "How does the OMB arrive at this conclusion without a single statutory leg to stand on?"
In our view, OMB’s rule for student requests is inconsistent with the statute. FOIA refers broadly to an “educational institution.” As we have explained, we see no good basis in the text or context of FOIA to draw a line here between the teachers and students within the educational institution. The Guideline’s ipse dixit distinction of students from teachers is entirely unexplained and unpersuasive. The Guideline says that a geology teacher seeking information about soil erosion to support her research is entitled to reduced fees. But why not the geology student seeking the same information for the same reason? Crickets. We discern no meaningful distinction for purposes of this statute between the geology teacher and the geology student.
As the court sees it, the OMB's diversion from the statutory mean may be more motivated by its position (the "Budget" part of OMB) to seek higher fees from more requesters -- allowing it to make more money while deterring a certain percentage of FOIA requesters. If so, that's its own problem and one it fixes immediately. The FOIA isn't supposed to be a profit-making enterprise, much less a reliable revenue stream.
But this statute, as we read it, does not empower the Government to pursue fiscal balance or provide relief for the FOIA bureaucracy on the backs of students. The statutory text and context lead us to this simple conclusion: If teachers can qualify for reduced fees, so can students.
The court cautions that its take on the "educational institution" price break is not meant to be read as FOIA: Student Edition and used by attendees to obtain cheap documents for personal or commercial use. It says the government can take steps to prevent abuse by requiring things like copies of student IDs, letters from instructors, etc. That being said, the court is similarly not granting agencies the power to follow the letter of ruling while doing everything they can to break its spirit.
We caution agencies against requiring hard-to-obtain verifications that will have the practical effect of deterring or turning away otherwise valid student FOIA requests.
This is a win for student Kathryn Sack and for all others similarly situated. It returns a fee exemption to a more logical place, rather than leaving it in the shape it was, where it could be used to deter requesters with limited means.