Federal agencies are allowed to charge “reasonable” costs for responding to your FOIA request. This typically includes fees for the time the record-keeper spends searching for the correct documents as well as the cost of duplicating those documents. See 5 U.S.C. 552(a)(4)(A).
FOIA breaks down requesters into three categories for determining fees:
- Commercial use requesters, who must pay all fees for search, duplication, and review
- Requesters from the professional media, educational institutions, and scientific institutions, who do not have to pay search fees and only pay duplication costs after the first 100 pages
- All other requestors, who pay search fees after the first two hours and duplication costs after the first 100 pages
Note that this means that small requests should always be free as long as the information is not intended for commercial purposes. Also, you should always be as specific as possible when describing the documents in your initial FOIA request. This will reduce the amount of time that the record-keeper must spend searching for the documents, which will potentially save you money.
Non-traditional journalists generally will fall into the last category -- and thus may be on the hook for search fees -- even if they intend to publish the information in blogs, websites, or other media. If you are not associated with professional media, you can always request that you should be considered under the second category because of your intent to publish. The New FOIA Reform Act, which goes into effect in December 2008, seems to broaden the scope of the "professional media" category. Under the new amendment, a person can be considered part of the news media if he or she gathers information that is of public interest, creates a distinct work, and distributes that work to an audience. However, the Reform Act cautions that this is not an all-inclusive category, so it remains to be seen if bloggers and other citizen journalists will be able to benefit from fee waivers generally only reserved for "professional" media. We've been following this issue in our blog, and you can read more about the new definition here.
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press's FOIA Guide breaks down some of the actual fees you can expect to pay:
Search fees generally range from $11 to $28 per hour, based on the salary and benefits of the employee doing the search. Fees for computer time, which are described in each agency’s FOI regulations, vary greatly. They may be as high as $270 per hour. Photocopying costs are normally between 3 and 25 cents per page.
If you think your request could involve a significant amount of search time or copying, make sure your FOIA request includes a limit on the fees you’re willing to pay. You may also want to ask in advance for an estimate of what the expected fees may be.
Here are some additional things to keep in mind when dealing with fee issues:
- Agencies can charge search fees even if they don’t find any documents that satisfy your request, since the futile search still took time.
- As long as you aren’t requesting the information for commercial purposes, agencies cannot charge you for time they spend deciding whether documents should be exempt or time they spend blacking out restricted information from the documents.
- Organizations can’t require you to pay in advance if the expected fee is less than $250 and you don’t have a prior history of failing to make payments with the organization.
- Under FOIA, organizations are required to publish fee schedules in the Federal Register. An organization’s FOI officer should be able to provide you with the schedule, though some are available on organizations’ websites. The fee schedule includes information about how much the particular agency charges for searching, copying, etc.
- You can always try asking the organization to waive or reduce fees, even if you haven't formally requested a fee waiver.
Fee waivers and fee reductions
Under the Freedom of Information Reform Act of 1986, your FOIA requests could be eligible for total or partial waiver of fees if you can show that the disclosure of the information is in the public interest—even if you aren’t a professional journalist. This requires that you specifically request a waiver or reduction of fees and explain why you think the public has an interest in understanding the information. See the DOJ's FOIA Guide for more information about the "public interest" fee waiver. You also must explain any financial interest you have in the information, though a financial stake in publishing the information -- such as if you are paid to blog -- should not pose a problem.
Agencies consider fee waiver requests on a case-by-case basis. You can appeal fee or waiver decisions in the same way you appeal request denials. See the section on What Are Your Remedies Under FOIA in this guide for more information.