Transparency Threatened by High Public Disclosure Costs

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October 25, 2010; Source: New Mexico Independent |Wikileaks’ recent publication of the latest trove of material revealing what only a few people really know about the wars being fought in Afghanistan and Iraq shows how difficult it is for governments to keep secret documents from public view. Yet as this story illustrates, in an era when classified reports can make their way to web for the entire world to see, governments can still find ways to thwart or slow the release documents that the public has a right to see and distribute on demand.

According to the New Mexico Independent, a watchdog nonprofit says it is hearing more complaints about “excessive” charges to make electronic copies of public records. These fees violate the state public records law, says Sarah Welsh, executive director of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government (FOG). She adds, “These include big bills to receive routine documents as e-mail attachments, and big bills for the privilege of making your own copies with a scanner or digital camera. Whatever the situation, unreasonable copy fees violate open-government laws and strongly discourage public access to information.”

New Mexico law allows individuals to inspect public documents for free. However, government agencies are also permitted to charge modest fees—but no more than $1 per page—when someone requests copies. However, the newspaper reports that in many cases fees, “arbitrarily exceed the actual cost of producing those copies.” Some even go as far as levying per-page charges for documents already in electronic form and that can be easily transferred by e-mail at no cost. Welsh says excessive fees represent the “final barrier to access” to people like herself who need to be able to examine public documents to make sure government actions are in the public’s interest.—Bruce Trachtenberg