Agencies are authorized to charge certain fees associated with the processing of requests. Some categories of requesters cannot be charged these fees and in some cases fees can be reduced or waived.
Under the FOIA, solely for fee purposes, an agency is required to determine the projected use of the records sought by the FOIA request and the type of requester asking for the documents. As the FOIA was intended to promote the public’s access to information, news media organizations and educational institutions are excused from certain fees.
Fee categories for FOIA are:
1) Commercial – Companies that or people who seek information for a use or purpose that furthers commercial, trade, or profit interests, including for use in litigation. Commercial requesters are required to pay for search, review and duplication costs.
2) Educational Institution – Preschools, public or private elementary or secondary schools, and institutions of graduate higher education, undergraduate higher education, professional education, or vocational education that operate a program(s) of scholarly research. Educational requesters are required to pay duplication costs, but are entitled to the first 100 pages without charge.
3) Non-Commercial Scientific Institution – Non-commercially operated institutions that conduct scientific research not intended to promote any particular product or industry. Non-commercial requesters are required to pay duplication costs, but are entitled to the first 100 pages without charge.
4) Representative of the News Media – People who actively gather news for entities organized and operated to publish or broadcast news to the public. News Media requesters are required to pay for duplication, but are entitled to the first 100 pages without charge.
5) Other Requesters – Requesters who do not fit into any of the above categories. These requesters are persons who are not commercial, news media, scientific or educational requesters and are required to pay search costs for more than 2 hours and duplication costs for more than 100 pages.
To demonstrate that you belong in an educational, news media or non-commercial fee category, provide information about the intended professional scholarly or journalistic uses of the information you receive. List any relevant previous or pending publications, including books, articles, dissertations, publication contracts or letters of intent or interest, or similar information that shows your ability to disseminate the information you receive from the agency. State that the materials are not requested solely for a private, profit-making commercial purpose. You should request that, to the extent any fees are assessable, the agency notify you if those fees will exceed an amount you specify. For a court decision interpreting the fee provisions of the FOIA, see National Security Archive v. Department of Defense, 880 F.2d 1381 (D.C. Cir. 1989).
Actual search, review and duplication fees vary by agency. Search/Review fees can be anywhere $8.00 to $45.00 per hour and duplication fees can be from $.10 to $.35 per page. Agencies cannot require a requester to make an advance payment unless the agency estimates that the fee is likely to exceed $250 or the requester previously failed to pay proper fees.
Under the FOIA it is possible to have all fees, including copying, waived by the agency if the material requested “is likely to contribute significantly to public understanding of the operations or activities of government and is not primarily in the commercial interest of the requester.” If your request fits this statutory criterion, you should make your case for a fee waiver in your request letter as strongly as possible. Be sure to describe the scholarly, historical, or current public interest in the material requested, identify specific operations or activities of government to which the request relates, why the information will contribute to an understanding of those activities and operations, why the public in general would be interested, and why the disclosure would be significant.