SPLC, student journalist sue Kan. community college over public records fees

KANSAS — TheStudent Press Law Center and a college journalist filed a lawsuit Tuesday againstJohnson County Community College in Kansas for excessive fees to release openrecords, including nearly $10,000 to produce one day’s worth of emails.

The college estimated a total of $24,130.72 to fulfillrequests by the SPLC and former copy editor Marcus Clem for staff emails anddocuments related to other open records requests.

Attorney Christopher Grenz, of the Kansas City law firm BryanCave, who is handling the case pro bono as part of the SPLC’s attorney referralnetwork, said the fees are “facially excessive.”

“They’re basically hanging a price tag on what should bepublic documents in order to keep those documents from being public,” Grenzsaid.

The current requests in the lawsuit have evolved from anoriginal request by Rachel Kimbrough, current editor in chief at The Campus Ledger student newspaper atJCCC. Clem said Kimbrough was working on a story about the closing of theOffice of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion and departure of program directorJason Rozelle.

According to the lawsuit, Kimbrough emailed Joseph Sopcich,executive vice president of administrative services, in March asking for allemails between Rozelle and Carmaletta Williams, the office’s executivedirector, between Aug. 1, 2010 and March 1, 2011. Mark Ferguson, JCCC legalcounsel, replied in an email “there is a significant amount of time and expenseassociated with your request.”

The college sent another reply stating costs to produceemails for the seven-month span would be $47,426.

At the advice of the SPLC, Clem refined the request foremails between Rozelle and Williams for a single day chosen at random, Jan. 16,2011. He also requested all emails in December 2010 between Rozelle and aprofessor, and for a list of all Kansas Open Records Act requests to the schooland its responses for 2010-11.

Sopcich, who did not return a request for comment by presstime, responded in May that it would cost $23,630.96 to fill the request.

Clem, who no longer works for The Campus Ledger, sent athird request alongside an identical request from the SPLC. It was similar tohis previous request, except it requested emails from the following day, Jan.17. The SPLC received a response from Sopcich in July detailing the costs,including a $9,745.96 projection for the one day of emails, which the schoolestimates totaled about 20 messages.

Contributing to that figure is $5,250 to contract an outsideagency for 25 hours of work at $210 per hour while the information servicesdepartment restores emails from a tape backup.

The school estimates $13,264.76 to produce the emails fromDecember. The three requests also include a total of four hours of legal workat $250 per hour and $998 in photocopying costs for 4,990 pages at $.20 a page.

Clem said the paper was “prepared to pay strictly printpublishing costs at the time” but “didn’t understand why they were chargingthat much just to retrieve the emails.”

Grenz said under the Kansas Open Records Act, the governmentcan charge a “reasonable” fee to retrieve public records but called theschool’s fee “ridiculous.”

Frank LoMonte, SPLC executive director, said the lawsuithighlights a growing trend of charging large fees to produce open records.

“Without knowing what’s going on behind the scenes, one oftwo things is clear — either the college is overcharging for these records inhopes that the students will shut up and go away, or it’s overcharging in hopesof turning the open-records act into a profit center,” LoMonte said. “We’reseeing this phenomenon all over the country, where agencies are ringing upthese jackpot bills for records, and it seems like public watchdogs are beingseen as an easy way for an agency in a budget crunch to turn a quick buck.Public records belong to the public, and there’s not supposed to be a mark-upso that agencies can make a windfall profit by selling the public’s owninformation back to us.”

With the lawsuit filed today, Grenz said the school has 21days to respond.

“It could take some time to get through all this, which isunfortunate because this all started as a legitimate request for public recordsso the student journalist could write a report,” he said. “The longer this goeson, the more difficult it is for them to do their jobs.”