Nuisance requests an obstacle to access to public information

By Shelley Kimball

There are certain kinds of requests for records that access professionals hate so much they wish they could find ways to outlaw them. Requests that frustrate them so much they wish they didn’t have to respond to them. Let’s call them nuisance requests.

We know that citizens are routinely blocked from access to government information across the country. The concept of denying access as a result of frustration is alarming. As a result, I researched how access professionals define nuisance requests in an effort to figure out how we can avoid the conflict as requesters.

Most states do not make a distinction between requests and nuisance requests, meaning requests cannot be denied just because they are frustrating.  However, a few states allow records custodians to adjust their responses to those requests.

  • Illinois recognizes that recurrent requesters (people who request more than seven records in seven days, 15 requests in 30 days, or 50 requests in a year) have the potential to be disruptive, but those requests must still be filled.
  • Kansas allows records custodians to deny access if a request “places an unreasonable burden in producing public records or if the custodian has reason to believe that repeated requests are intended to disrupt other essential functions of the public agency,” but that refusal must be proven by a preponderance of the evidence.
  • Michigan allows that “a public body can make reasonable rules necessary to protect its public records and to prevent excessive and unreasonable interference with the discharge of its functions.”

So what makes for a nuisance request? Records custodians said they are requests made with an inappropriate intent, and custodians don't think the requester has a need to know. They are fishing expeditions, in which requesters won’t explain what they want and they are trying to capture something randomly. They are recurring, and they are voluminous, wrongly formatted, inconvenient requests.

However, the intent of open government laws is to allow public access, no matter how annoying and overarching the request. None of these are appropriate reasons to deny access.

That said, records requesters can still ensure that they are as precise as they can be in requesting so that they are not engendering an adversarial response. Some of the best ways to avoid being frustrating or a nuisance in trying to access information is to do the following, according to records custodians:

1. Be as specific as possible in your request and explain what you are trying to find, if possible.

2. Research before you ask – see if the records are available online, make sure the office you are contacting is the correct one, be aware that you might be asked to pay for copies or search time.

3. Be empathetic and polite. 

4. Recognize that depending on what is being requested, it make take time to respond.

5. Be realistic about what you are trying to access, and request manageable amounts of information.

That does not mean that we should not be asking for large amounts of records, or we should avoid asking vaguely if we aren’t exactly sure what we want or we want to make sure we gather what we need and some surrounding records. It just means that we should recognize that it is more effective to work amicably to get access to information.

While this may feel like arguments over paperwork and photocopies, it is larger than that. Working through these potentially cofronttional interactions means a more transparent government and a stronger citizenry.

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Shelley Kimball, Ph.D., is a professorial lecturer of media law at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C. and the University of Florida. She has been studying the the interaction between records requester and access professionals for 20 years, and her goal is always to find ways to make it less adversarial. She is the editor of this column, and she accepts submissions at Kimball@gwu.edu.

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