NEWS MEDIA UPDATE · WASHINGTON, D.C. · Freedom of Information · Nov. 3, 2006
Nonprofit group entitled to public interest fee waiver
Nov. 3, 2006 · A federal judge has ruled that Freedom of Information Act requesters do not have to pay fees if they provide sufficient detail about how they generally disseminate publicly beneficial information.
The Edmonds Institute, a nonprofit environmental group based in Washington state, had requested information on monetary agreements between the National Park Service and biotechnology firms.
The National Park Service turned over more than 300 documents on its bioprospecting policies, detailing benefits-sharing agreements between the agency and private entities over research derived from specimens collected in national parks.
However, the agency blocked the release of 19 additional documents and denied the Edmonds Institute a public interest fee waiver, meaning the group would have been responsible for all fees related to the request.
Under FOIA, a requester can have the cost of searching for and duplicating documents responsive to its request waived or reduced if disclosing the information “is in the public interest because it is likely to contribute significantly to the public understanding of the operations or activities of the government and is not primarily in the commercial interest of the requester.”
On Monday, U.S. District Judge John D. Bates upheld the agency’s denial of the additional documents but ruled that the Edmonds Institute’s request was entitled to a fee waiver for the other disclosed material because the group had stated in “reasonably detailed” language how it generally conveyed information to the public.
Edmonds pointed out in its request that it maintains a Web site, has published a book and participates in various environmental conferences. The National Park Service had argued that the quality and availability of the Edmonds Web site and book were too poor to be considered beneficial to the public interest.
Bates said he would not “evaluate the quality of Edmonds’s scholarship or . . . specify a minimum level of expertise required to obtain a fee waiver.” The law, Bates wrote, was designed to be construed liberally in favor of noncommercial requestors. By detailing how it distributes information to benefit the public, Edmonds had met the minimal requirements of the law.
Bates also stated that the government may not require requesters to show that their past FOIA requests yielded information beneficial to the public.
Representatives of the news media already receive favorable fee status under a separate provision of FOIA and are usually assessed only the cost of reproducing responsive documents.
But the media requester fee category may require journalists, especially freelancers, to provide specific information about how they plan to disseminate the information requested by, for example, providing a copy of a publishing contract. This case, examining only the public interest element, allows requesters another avenue for reduced or completely waived fees without requiring the need for a contract already in hand.
The decision will also help reporters because many rely on nonprofit groups to dig into government issues that reporters might not otherwise have the time or inclination to explore, said Daniel Stotter, an attorney for the Edmonds Institute.
“It is going to have a big impact on journalists who rely upon public interest groups to shine a light on some of these issues,” Stotter said.
Stotter said search fee assessments have increasingly become a tool used by agencies to block disclosure of information to nonprofit public interest groups. This decision reinforces how nonprofit groups should detail specifically how a request will benefit the public, he said.
“A prudent requester must put as much attention to the language in a fee waiver request as to the subject of the request — it has become that much of an obstacle,” Stotter said.
(The Edmonds Institute v. U.S. Dep’t of Interior; Requester’s Counsel: Daniel Stotter, Eugene, Ore.) — NW