May 24, 2016 – National Freedom of Information Coalition (NFOIC)
Knight Foundation NFOIC FOI Fund helps finance plaintiff’s appeal in far-reaching FOIA case
A United States Circuit Court in the District of Columbia ruled last week that “Educational Requester” status in federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) petitions applies to all students seeking government information for educational purposes. The decision came on an appeal by plaintiff Kathryn Sack, a University of Virginia graduate student after losing in District Court. People who petition under an educational requester category are not subject to the same fees and restrictions applied to other FOIA requesters.
In 2011, Ms. Sack was working on her dissertation on polygraph bias. She filed multiple FOIA requests among Department of Defense. Ms. Sack was denied information from the National Security Agency (NSA) and she sued the agency and the DoD.
Public records petitioners fall into a special fee category to determine how much time and which services will be provided by the agency before fees are applied to their request. Ms. Sack stated she was conducting the request for educational purposes, which is required to be considered a representative of an educational organization. She also presented a document from her academic advisor confirming the work was for her dissertation and she was representing the university. NSA determined her request fell into the “All Others” category and that it did not need to do any work, even to provide two free hours of search and 100 free copied pages, because she refused to pay. On December 9, 2013, U.S. District Judge Robert Wilkins upheld the NSA denial.
Ms. Sack’s attorney appealed the district court’s decision. On Friday, May 20th, Circuit Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s ruling for a unanimous three-judge panel found Ms. Sack qualified for Educational Requester status. The court also ruled that any student making a federal FOIA request qualifies as “Educational Requester” if their petition is for educational purposes.
“This is a huge decision,” said Ms. Sack’s attorney, Kel McClanahan. “It’s the first circuit ruling anywhere on whether students are educational requesters, and now they will be treated the same as professors according to the D.C. Circuit which effectively negates the OMB FOIA Guidelines interpretation.”
“There are so many cases where public records petitioners halted their efforts to pursue their request due to the prohibitive costs they knew they would incur –and would not be able to afford,” said Mal Leary, President of the National Freedom of Information Coalition (NFOIC) whose organization provided funds to support the appeal. “It’s also a tactic used by public institutions to quash freedom of information petitions and appeals,” he added.
Through support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation to NFOIC, the Knight FOI Fund exists to offer financial support in open government lawsuits and assist the pursuit of important FOI cases by helping to defray upfront costs such as filing fees, depositions, court costs and other expenses associated with legal actions. Since it began in January 2010, the Knight FOI Fund has assisted NFOIC member organizations, their allies and other litigants with 38 grant awards in FOI or access cases.
As for Ms. Sack’s information request, the Circuit Court has instructed the NSA to begin a new search, without limits on time, to determine if it does maintain records covered under her FOIA petition. [VIEW THE NFOIC NEWS RELEASE HERE]