A high school journalism student in Michigan got a lesson in dealing with authorities this week when his school district sent him a bill for nearly $8000, the cost the district said it would incur to provide email conversations he was requesting as part of an article for the school paper.
Chris Robbins is a senior at Salem High School in Canton, Mich., about 20 minutes west of Detroit. He was working on a story for the student newspaper about how Plymouth-Canton Community Schools, the district that includes Salem High, decides what websites to block on school computer networks. Under the guidance of his journalism class instructor, Leola Gee, Robbins submitted to the school district a formal request for information under the Freedom of Information Act. As part of the request, Robbins asked for email correspondence between administrators and faculty who had appealed the blocking of particular websites.
The school district replied by sending a bill for nearly $8000, which it said would be the district’s cost to search for and forward to him 85 email conversations related to the appeals. “We understood they would charge us for some of the information, but the class was mind-boggled (at the amount),” says Robbins.
A review of the district’s itemized response shows it calculated the time necessary to retrieve the 85 email conversations and to forward them to Robbins at 179 man hours. The employee who would perform the work earns $44.93 per hour, for a grand total of $7917.15.
“I remember an audible gasp,” Gee says of the class’s reaction to the district’s response. “I truly thought it was a math error or a typo.”
The district estimated it would take two hours to find and forward the email conversation related to each appeal. Incidentally, Gee had filed an appeal herself, asking that a certain blocked website be removed from the list of those banned by the district. She says her appeal included about five email messages. “I’m not sure why researching that would take 2 hours,” says Gee.
Robbins appealed the amount of the cost. In response, the school district sent a different bill but for an even higher amount, this time asking for about $8800, saying the previous amount was miscalculated. “It’s an outstanding lesson for journalism students,” says Gee, a former writer for The Detroit News. “Real world experience is a positive thing, and that’s exactly what they’re getting.”
Robbins and his classmates have reached out to various First Amendments rights organizations for advice. Gee says the students have consulted with attorneys for those groups, and what action the students take next will be up to them. “I’m allowing the students to make the decisions because it’s a student-run paper. But I would always encourage the students to shine a light on the corners of government entities, and schools are government entities.”
Adam Goldstein, an attorney advocate for Student Press Law Center, which is advising Robbins, says the center usually receives two inquiries each week from students seeking guidance because a school district is requiring big money to release information. Goldstein says the amount PCCS is demanding is among the higher dollar amounts he’s heard.
“I’m highly skeptical it would take that long to read email,” Goldstein says. “I’d have to question the reading ability of the person going through the emails if it took him that long.”
Despite the school district’s refusal to turn over the emails at a cost the student paper can afford, Robbins says he did write a story about the district’s website blocking practices. It is being edited now, he says, and is slated to publish Dec. 18.
Robbins got started writing when he was 15, writing about Detroit’s professional sports teams for a sports website. “I wasn’t that great at writing until I found journalism,” he says. “I was never great at essays or class (writing) assignments. But I like bringing out things people don’t think about on a daily basis.”
When the school year began, says Robbins, he noticed a lot of students and faculty talking about websites that were blocked by the school district. Over the summer, the district had changed some of the websites accessible on school computers and networks, he says.
“People were wondering why certain websites were blocked,” says Robbins. “People were surprised other websites weren’t blocked, because they had mature content or were for playing games.”
The reporter in him smelled a story. So Robbins began asking teachers and principals in the district about the processes for deciding what websites to block. “I heard there might be inconsistencies in what sites are getting blocked,” Robbins says.
Asked whether the experience dealing with his school has discouraged him, Robbins says the opposite is true. “This whole issue made the process more fun,” Robbins says with a laugh. “I’m definitely going into some sort of writing career. I don’t know what, but journalism is definitely an option.
“Hopefully this will make more people think about censorship,” Robbins says. “That was the goal in the first place.”
Phone calls to PCCS for comment were not returned.