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In the face of press attempts to access documents related to the summer police brutality death of Michael Brown and its aftermath, Ferguson officials are charging high fees just to allow journalistic access to public records normally protected by the states long-standing Sunshine Law pertaining to public records access.
According to the Associated Press, the city has demanded fees for documents that it could have released for free, without much in the way of explaining the reason for demanding such costs for the records. The fees are allowed by law, but are often accompanied by an explanation of the cost, and are rarely this high.
The AP notes that in one case, they were charged a $135/hr rate in order to access emails made since the time of the shooting. The fee did not include additional costs to review or release said emails. The AP said that hourly rate was almost ten times the hourly salary paid to Ferguson city clerks. This sort of price-gouging is meant to discourage both the press and activist groups from trying to gain access to memos, emails, schedules, the personnel file of Officer Darren Wilson, and records about Michael Brown himself.
The Associated Press was not the only organization to be charged such high fees. It notes that the Washington Post was charged $200 as a minimum for access to citizen complaints, the emails of city officials and information on Wilson. Buzzfeed was charged an unspecified amount in the thousands of dollars range to access memos about city traffic policy and changes to local election, along with emails.
City attorney Stephanie Karr declined to speak with the Associated Press, but said through an intermediary that such extra costs may be a result of having to search emails for key words, which constitutes “extra computer programming”. Other charges towards the AP in particular included a request for the AP to pay almost $2,000 to an outside firm to retrieve email messages.
The American Civil Liberties Union’s Missouri chapter filed a public records lawsuit for police records in the immediate aftermath of the Brown incident, but ended up receiving a censored report lacking in the names and details normally included in such records. Other activists have been vocal about their displeasure with the fees. Executive Director Mike Cavender of the Radio Television Digital News Association said to the AP that “These exorbitant fees are merely a tactic of delay and intimidation. The public has a right to these records without interference.”
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