For an individual to submit a FOIA request on their own, it is quite an expensive process, however there are several options to apply for a fee waiver. There are several categories that a requester can fall under:
- An individual seeking information for personal use and not for commercial use
- A representative of the news media seeking information as part of a news gathering effort and not for commercial use
- Affiliated with an educational or noncommercial scientific institution seeking information for a scholarly or scientific purpose and not for commercial use.
- Affiliated with a private corporation and seeking information for use in the company’s business
It is best to be affiliated with a news-media organization or an educational or scientific institution. If you are, you will not have to pay search and review fees (which can sometimes amount to thousands of dollars), and you only pay copying fees that exceed $100.
The reason why the allow for fee waivers is because as a news media organization or educational institution it is understood that you are doing a service to the public. The central idea is that any information you obtain through the FOIA (which is in theory public to everyone, not just you) you make widely available to other people. It is understood that under these two categories, you do not make money from or sell the information.
If you are a staff, student, or faculty at a university, it might be best to affiliate with a center or organization on campus. If you are not connected to a university, try to connect with a local non-profit or NGO doing similar work, and you could try to argue that the organization is a news media organization doing a public service by publishing the information on the website, a blog, or through a newsletter.
You will want to have a fee waiver request letter on hand, and file it with every FOIA request you submit for a while until the agency becomes familiar with you. The letter should be signed by the director of your organization, center, or department and address the following points:
- Clearly state your affiliation (student, researcher, volunteer, faculty, paid staff) with the organization or university.
- State if you are affiliated with a “news media organization” or “educational institution” making it clear which category you are arguing to fall under.
- Explain how your topic is of great public interest, with examples. Explain how you will use the information to benefit the public. Connect it to your work at the educational institution or news media organization.
- How you will make the information available to the public, including existing examples/connections to a website, blog, or other outlet for sharing the information. It is best to have solid, concrete evidence of an existing publishing platform.
- How you are qualified to do the research and disseminate. This can be explaining your expertise in the subject area, your academic and professional qualifications, etc.
If your fee waiver request is denied, you can appeal the decision and provide additional supporting evidence. You could include any previous web publications, previous FOIA litigation cases in which fee waivers were argued and won, or additional letters from a Dean at your university, for example.