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Small-town newspaper faces off with police chief over fees

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    NMU         SOUTH CAROLINA         Freedom of Information         Feb 15, 2001    

Small-town newspaper faces off with police chief over fees

  • The fees charged for police records requested by a weekly newspaper in a community of 3,000 exceeds its budget.

Travelers Rest, S.C., a small town 15 miles north of Greenville, has a population of 3,069 and a big problem.

The police chief has decided to take an unusual view of the state records law and impose exorbitant fees on the weekly newspaper, the Travelers Rest Monitor. The Monitor, unable to afford legal help, may have to succumb to the police chief’s demands if it wants to obtain any public records.

Police Chief Tim Christy started charging the newspaper after it investigated allegations of misconduct by a city police officer. The allegations and newspaper coverage led to an internal investigation, which resulted in the resignation of the officer.

“This all began with citizen complaints of physical abuse centered around one particular officer in the police department,” said Roger Jewell, a reporter and photographer for the Travelers Rest Monitor. “We began a series of articles and all of a sudden the chief started withholding arrest records and warrants, and they put a high fee on any release of their records, which was more or less just a roadblock to us getting them.”

At $6 a copied page and $10 for a computer generated page, the newspaper was unable to afford access to the records it needed to report on the abuse allegations.

The South Carolina open records law allows fees, but only to cover the cost of copying. One provision of the law allows any public body to reduce the copying fee or waive it entirely if furnishing the information benefits the general public.

“The police chief in Travelers Rest is claiming that he is charging no more than the Greenville county sheriff’s office is charging. Well, we get any report we want from the county at no cost at all. So, we’ve shot him down on that,” he said. Apparently, the Greenville sheriff’s department thinks that providing copies of its records to the newspaper benefits the general public, Jewell said.

But perhaps the most egregious fee levied by the police chief is an $800 fee Jewell said the newspaper must now pay for previously released records before any other records are released to him. Prior to the newspaper’s investigation of the police department, Jewell said, he had not been assessed any fee.

“Before that point, we had an agreement with them where they would print a list of incidents and I would go down there every Friday and pick what I wanted off of that list and they would give me a copy of the records,” he said. “There were no fees mentioned at that time. And, all of a sudden, he issues a letter with these fees and also tries to charge us for things he has released to us up to that point. That is just ridiculous.”

The state legislature revised the open records law last year to make it more access friendly.

“We’re just not getting anywhere with them. I was told that I don’t have any rights down there in the city hall,” Jewell said. “We have conducted a poll with neighboring newspapers and it revealed that no other news agency is being charged a fee for these records from the police chief. The state legislature boosted the open records law up last year and it’s not working here in Travelers Rest. I guess the police think they are above state law.”

For now, the only recourse the weekly newspaper has is to write about the denial.

“We cannot afford the chief’s rates and an attorney isn’t in the budget,” Jewell said.

Jewell said the city would look better in the public eye if it had just released the records in the first place, and not made it impossible for the newspaper to obtain them.

“It would have been for their benefit if they could have released some records for us. It would have been from their point of view — the official word.”

CC


© 2001 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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