Freedom of Information advocates will always encourage citizens to submit requests for information. As champions of transparency, it would be ludicrous to expect otherwise. However, in some instances, they may find themselves on thin ice defending the earnestness of the requester or even the cost to process certain seemingly trivial requests.
In the United Kingdom (UK), requesters have cost the public over £31million (almost $48 million) since the Freedom of Information Act went into effect. Some requests, however, may call into question the reasonableness administrative cost of responding with even a “no responsive records” reply.
A few bizarre requests include: “What preparations has the council made for a zombie attack?” and “How much money has been paid to exorcists over the past 12 months?” These requests can be easily dismissed due to the obvious lack of responsive records, but what of Angela Wright’s request for “eligible bachelors within Hampshire constabulary between the ages of 35 and 49 and details of their email addresses, salary, and pension values”. There are likely many responsive documents and quite a bit of redaction work to do in order to respond to such a request.
Ms. Wright may have a reason, albeit selfish, for requesting that information, but some requests seem to be intended solely to tie up or waste resources, for example “How many drawing pins are in the building and what percentage are currently stuck in a pin board?”
This is not an isolated problem in the UK. On the other side of the pond, Barbara Schwarz exceeds even seasoned journalists in her volume of FOIA requests to the US government. Her requests center on her “belief that she is the daughter of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, born in a submarine village under the Great Salt Lake in Utah, and was kidnapped from it and taken to Germany as part of a Nazi conspiracy. She also says that she believes that L. Ron Hubbard is the son of President Dwight Eisenhower and that the Federal government is concealing the whereabouts of former Church official Mark Rathbun, whom she says is her husband, and that he was falsely imprisoned for her own murder. When shown a recent photo of Rathbun provided by the Church of Scientology, she said that it was not the same man. ”
I am not questioning the virtue of government transparency or public access to information. However, it does seem silly that the public should pay for either time-wasting prank requests or redundant requests as above. In Barbara’s case, the public didn’t. Two US Courts of Appeals ruled her requests and lawsuits as frivolous. But that is not always the case and, amusing as many of these requests are, it raises the question: where is the line between protecting and abusing the right to information? What do you think?