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Law professor fears FOIA ruling will be obstacle

 BECKLEY, W.Va. — Many people are voicing growing concerns about the West Virginia Supreme Court’s recent ruling that allows government agencies to charge a retrieval fee for Freedom of Information Act requests.

Count Patrick McGinley, a WVU law professor since 1975, among them.

“I felt it was absolutely clear that the only charge public bodies could make was for the actual cost of the document, not search and retrieval fees,” McGinley said.

Prior to the ruling, agencies were allowed to charge for replication, or copying, costs of documents in a FOIA request, but the Supreme Court’s 4-1 ruling now allows agencies to tack on additional search or retrieval fees.

The state’s Freedom of Information Act, like a similar federal law, allows all citizens to request public documents and requires state and federal agencies to provide them in a timely manner. Many agencies are reluctant to turn over such documents, and have often used delaying tactics or excessive copying fees to stonewall those seeking public information.

McGinley said that if the Legislature wanted public bodies to be allowed to charge search and retrieval fees, it could have said so in the statute.

He agrees with Justice Brent Benjamin’s opinion that this ruling is a step backward from trying to make government more open and accessible.

The Freedom of Information Act is part of what McGinley teaches in his administrative law course, which relates to laws and regulations of public bodies, how they operate and how they make rules.

McGinley has litigated a number of major FOIA cases before the West Virginia Supreme Court and has even co-authored the Open Government Guide for West Virginia, which is a complete inventory of information on open records and open meeting laws.

These guides, created for every state, are published by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and available online to reporters, journalists and the public.

“Importantly, FOIA is one of the great contributions to American democracy,” McGinley said…

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