Bureaucrats in Ferguson, Missouri, responding to requests under the state’s Sunshine Act to turn over government files about the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown, are charging nearly 10 times the cost of some of their own employees’ salaries before they will agree to release any records.
The move discourages journalists and civil rights groups from investigating the shooting and its aftermath.
The city has demanded high fees to produce copies of records that, under Missouri law, it could give away free if it determined the material was in the public’s interest to see. Instead, in some cases, the city has demanded high fees with little explanation or cost breakdown. It billed The Associated Press $135 an hour — for nearly a day’s work — merely to retrieve a handful of email accounts since the shooting.
That fee compares with an entry-level, hourly salary of $13.90 in the city clerk’s office, and it didn’t include costs to review the emails or release them. The AP has not paid for the search.
Price-gouging for government files is one way that local, state and federal agencies have responded to requests for potentially embarrassing information they may not want released. Open records laws are designed to give the public access to government records at little or no cost, and have historically exposed waste, wrongdoing and corruption.
This is particularly pernicious when it comes to discouraging local reporters or freelancers, who don’t have the budgets the AP does, nor the lawyers to fight the high fees. And local editors are often too cowed by officials to call them out like this.
Large news organizations that can afford to give exactly no fucks should do exactly this, all the time. It’s the only way the dumbasses with their hands on the information will learn that you can’t stop the signal.