- Associated Press - Friday, December 4, 2015

PLYMOUTH, Mich. (AP) - A big potential bill for a Freedom of Information Act request by a suburban Detroit high school newspaper reporter ended up teaching some lessons about getting to public records.

Chris Robbins wanted to figure out why teachers and students weren’t allowed to use Pinterest and other websites blocked by Plymouth-Canton Community Schools, so the Salem High School senior sent a FOIA request to the district, Michigan Radio reported.

Robbins initially sought emails in which some 85 teachers and staff appealed blocked websites. In response, district administrators said it would cost $7,917.15 to provide Robbins with that information. He appealed - and then was told it would cost $8,806.

With help from others, Robbins narrowed the request and documents were received on Monday for free, The Detroit News reported. A story is planned in the Dec. 18 edition of the student newspaper, which is called The Perspective.

“I had no idea, I mean, I was shocked. I’m a student here, I don’t work outside of school,” Robbins said. “So I was surprised that they would charge a student for this information, especially. And it should be information that’s open to the public to begin with.”

District officials estimated the cost based on time for going through emails.

“We respect this student enough that we treated it like any FOIA request,” said Nick Brandon, communications director for the Plymouth-Canton School District. “Once it’s made and elements of it are analyzed, we respond with a good faith estimate.”

The initial estimate was increased, Brandon said, after correcting the hourly rate that FOIA guidelines require the district to use as a benchmark.

Jeremy Steele, director of the Michigan Interscholastic Press Association, and the district both advised Robbins to narrow his information request. Rather than ask for the teachers emails, he limited his request to district policies and discussions.

Leola Gee, the student newspaper’s faculty adviser and former Detroit News columnist, called it “the most incredible FOIA lesson I’ve ever taught.” She said: “Students have a right to ask government entities for public documents without getting a punitive response.”

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