High school journalists slapped with an $8,800 FOIA bill

MICHIGAN — A student reporter was quoted a fee of almost $9,000 by a Michigan school district to see why teachers and staff wanted access to certain blocked websites at school.

Chris Robbins, a high school senior and reporter at The Perspective, wanted to know how Plymouth-Canton Community Schools decided which websites were blocked from school computers, and why certain appeals to allow websites were made and the outcomes. He submitted a public-records request for teacher emails and other district documents.

“I came up with the idea for the article after talking to a couple of staff members that were concerned about websites being blocked that they were trying to use for institutional purpose,” he said.

But Robbins was taken aback when the district estimated the cost of the records at $7,917.15 — the price of 176.3 hours of work at a $44.92 hourly cost.

“I was expecting a slight cost, like $100 to $200,” he said. “But for them to send me a couple of thousand dollars back, that was really surprising for me.”

Robbins was surprised again when the district came back and said the actual cost would be $8,806, exceeding the initial estimate.

The district estimated fulfilling the request would take 170 hours of work. Michigan open-records law states that the cost per hour is determined by the hourly wage of the lowest-paid employee capable of completing the request; in this case, the cost was $49.95 an hour.

The bulk of the work was due to Robbins’ request for emails from about 85 teachers and staff who appealed blocked websites.

“If a teacher requests for Pinterest to be unblocked, the teacher has to send in why they want that site to be unblocked,” Robbins said. “So I was hoping to find out why the teachers want to have websites unblocked and what the district said about it.”

After hearing the estimate, he was advised by his newspaper adviser to appeal to the superintendent. The superintendent never responded, Robbins said. Instead, he heard from Nick Brandon, the director of communications.

“He said that we can give you everything else for free of charge, if you exclude the staff emails,” Robbins said.

Brandon did not immediately return the Student Press Law Center’s request for comment on Monday, but he was quoted in the Macomb Daily News as saying that the district respected the student journalist enough to treat his request like any other.

After receiving advice from several First Amendment organizations and experts in the state, Robbins agreed to narrow his request. The Perspective accepted the documents offered by the district, which explained the procedures and guidelines used by the district, the category of websites blocked, a list of the sites that were appealed, the result of the appeals and a couple of emails from the committee members who make the decisions regarding the allowed sites. The staff received the documents on Nov. 30.

“The documents that we received were pretty basic,” Robbins said.

According to a press release the students issued, the story will appear in the Dec. 18 print edition of the Perspective and on their website.

In a statement, Genevieve St. Jean, the news editor for the Perspective, said she thinks it’s important for people in the district to know what websites are blocked and what the reasons are.

“The school should have released the information at no charge as this issue [affects] the whole district,” she said.

Robbins still wants to know why teachers and staff asked to allow certain sites. He plans to keep digging for information.

“It was definitely a great experience, a learning experience for everyone involved,” Robbins said. “I sincerely hope we get to find out the information some way or another.”

Contact SPLC staff writer Corey Conner at (202) 974-6318 or by email