It seems that Ferguson officials want the world to forget about last month’s fatal shooting of Michael Brown. At least, that’s how journalists are interpreting a move by the city clerk’s office in the small St. Louis suburb: It is charging them nearly 10 times the hourly salary of one of its clerks to obtain public records on the case.
The Associated Press reported Monday that the clerk’s office charged the organization $135 an hour for nearly a day’s work, to retrieve what the AP said was just “a handful of email accounts since the shooting.” It’s not unusual for municipalities to charge the media for the time it takes staff to retrieve and photocopy documents requested under public records law. But for perspective, the entry-level hourly salary for a Ferguson city clerk is $13.90, according to the AP.
The AP, along with several other news organizations and civil rights groups, had filed its request under Missouri’s Sunshine Law, which requires government officials to release public records to news organizations, upon formal request. All US states, the District of Columbia and the federal government have open meeting laws, according to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, a US non-profit dedicated to providing legal assistance to journalists. The US Supreme court has ruled that the First Amendment grants the right of access to public records in most situations, and some states have included that right into their constitutions.
Some of these states offer the records for free, others at a small cost. In Ferguson, the AP wasn’t the only organization facing exorbitant fees: Journalists from The Washington Post told the AP the newspaper was quoted a price of $200 to fulfill its requests, and Buzzfeed said it was told it would have to pay unspecified thousands for access to emails and memos on the city’s traffic-citation policies and changes to local elections.
A representative from the Ferguson city’s clerk’s office declined to comment, and referred Quartz to the office’s outside media consultant for statement. We will update this post when we receive the statement.
Price-gouging by local governments throughout the US is a common tactic for discouraging further reporting on a given issue that is under scrutiny, the AP points out. In the case of Ferguson, because no city official has addressed the accusations from the press and others, it is difficult to say what the motive was. What is likely, however, is that there will be further scrutiny of local police and government practices as the city determines how to deal with Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, the man who shot and killed Michael Brown. The grand jury, who began hearing evidence a full 10 days after the shooting, has until Jan. 7 to decide whether to charge Wilson.