Connecticut has passed a law giving agencies a way to deny “vexatious requesters” access to public records.
House Bill 5175 was signed into law by Gov. Dannel Malloy on June 7, 2018. Under the law, a public agency can petition the state’s Freedom of Information Commission “for relief from a requester that the public agency alleges is a vexatious requester.” From there, a hearing may be held and if the requester is determined to be “vexatious,” the agency can deny future requests for up to one year.
NextRequest, an online records requesting platform, defines a “vexatious requester” as “a citizen who repeatedly attempts to get information from their government through frequent or voluminous requests.”
To start the process with the Freedom of Information Commission, the agency submits a petition including, but not limited to:
- The number of requests filed and the total number of pending requests;
- The scope of the requests;
- The nature, content, language or subject matter of the requests;
- The nature, content, language or subject matter of other oral and written communications to the agency from the requester;
- A pattern of conduct that amounts to an abuse of the right to access information under the Freedom of Information Act or an interference with the operation of the agency.
Connecticut state Sen. Heather Somers, a co-sponsor of the bill for the 2018 legislative session, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Christopher Hanna, editor-in-chief of The Daily Campus at the University of Connecticut, Storrs, said this new law is “counterproductive for the original intentions of the [FOI] law.”
FOI laws in Connecticut were already complicated. If an appeal for a request that had been denied was found to be frivolous, “without reasonable grounds and solely for the purpose of harassing the agency from which the appeal has been taken,” the requester could be fined anywhere from $20 to $1000.
“As student journalists, we need to use FOIA for certain things, especially at a state university like UConn, where we try to get information and we try to get it out quick,” Hanna said.
Hanna said “the definition of vexatious is…subjective,” and it could be “a slippery slope.”
“It could definitely harm the way student journalists, and just journalists in general, work,” Hanna said.
However, Hanna said this law will not stop him or the reporters at The Daily Campus from continuing to request records from the university.
“As student journalists, we study, we go out, seek the truth and report it, and that’s what we try to do, and I don’t think that’s going to change much,” Hanna said
Frank LoMonte, director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information, said the law is “too open-ended and subjective and it could inhibit news organizations from making legitimate requests.”
“While a journalist making legitimate use of FOI requests shouldn’t ever have to worry about being categorized as ‘vexatious,’ the Connecticut law doesn’t give adequate guidance about what makes someone a ‘vexatious’ requester,” LoMonte said. “Basically if a school district or a college got tired of a particular reporter, they could petition to have the person banned from making future FOI requests on the grounds that their requests were too frequent. But there’s nothing in the law that specifies whether thirty requests a year, or three, is regarded as too many.”
LoMonte said his “biggest concern is how the state is going to define the ‘requester’ who’s subject to being banned.” He said he wondered if entire organizations would be able to be banned from requesting records, in addition to individuals.
“I don’t think the legislature adequately considered that it was arming agencies with a weapon of retaliation that can easily be abused to inhibit aggressive journalism,” LoMonte said.
*Correction: A previous version of this story named Connecticut state Sen. Heather Somers as the senate member who introduced the bill for the 2018 legislative session. Somers did not introduce the bill, but was a co-sponsor of the bill.
SPLC reporter Monica Kast can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 202-974-6318. Follow her on Twitter at @monica_kast.
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