An editorial from the Weirton Daily Times
WEIRTON, W.Va. — It seems everything has a price these days. Even freedom of information – the very foundation of our liberty.
It can be very difficult to obtain information government officials don’t want us to have. That can range from details of the war against terrorism on down to how much your town is spending on street paving.
Through the First Amendment and specific laws enacted down through the years, Americans are supposed to have free access to nearly all information about government. Here in West Virginia, stiff laws on public access to documents and how government meetings are held have the same intent.
An entire chapter of the state code is set aside to cover freedom of information. Its introduction is a no-nonsense declaration of intent, including these words: “The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know.”
But, some government officials appear to have concluded, it doesn’t say anything about how much that can cost.
To their credit, many local officials make it as easy and economical as they can for the public to obtain government documents. If finding a particular one doesn’t take long and it doesn’t include many pages, the person asking for it sometimes is told, “No charge.”
Not everyone in town halls and county courthouses feels that way. There have been reports of several situations – including some in the Northern Panhandle – in which hefty fees are being charged for public documents. “Copying charges” of as much as $1 per page are normal in some places.
That can make it difficult for people of limited or even middle-class means to obtain the documents they seek to check up on their public officials. The cost to obtain a copy of a complicated construction project contract could run into the hundreds of dollars.
Unfortunately, the state Supreme Court has cleared the way for such shenanigans – and worse. Earlier this year, the court ruled government agencies can charge fees for the time it takes to locate requested documents. It takes little imagination to see how that could be used as a way of limiting access.
It doesn’t cost anywhere near $1 a page to duplicate most documents, of course. And the only check on whether abusive fees are charged for locating documents is the very people who charge for the service.
If you can’t just tell people government documents are none of their business, price them out of the public’s reach. That is a clear danger to our right to know – and residents of West Virginia should not stand for it.