A&A: Is it legal to charge fees for viewing a transcript?

Q: My organization is being charged a fee to view parole hearing transcripts–not copy; simply view. We are also told we will be charged to view the complete parole board’s response to a public hearing. We would like an opinion on the legality of this policy

A: It sounds like you know that under the Public Records Act, “[p]ublic records are open to inspection at all times during the office hours of the state or local agency and every person has a right to inspect any public record, except as hereafter provided. Gov’t Code § 6253(a).

Public agencies may charge a fee “covering direct costs of duplication” (or a statutory fee). Gov’t Code § 6253(b). As for charging the public for the right to merely inspect records, the agency may be on shaky ground.

By its own terms, the PRA does not seem to authorize the imposition of fees for inspection of records (versus copying) and I am not aware of any authority holding that an agency may impose charges for a member of the public to inspect a document (without obtaining a copy).

You might want to write to the agency letting them know that, while you would be willing to pay for copies of records should you need them, the Act does not seem to provide for payment to merely inspect records, and in fact requires that public records be open to inspection during the agency’s office hours, and that every person have the right to inspection those records. Gov’t Code § 6253(b).

If the agency refuses to permit you to inspect the records free of charge, your ultimate recourse would be to file a lawsuit under Gov’t Code § 6259.

Such lawsuits are typically initiated by a verified petition (i.e., a request filed under oath) that asks the court to issue a writ of mandate, which is a type of order directing the public agency to take a specified action. Attorney’s fees are available to a plaintiff who prevails in litigation filed pursuant to the Act, Gov’t Code § 6259(d).

In any follow-up correspondence to the agency, you may want to subtly, but firmly, mention that attorneys’ fees are available should you be required to take court action.

Holme Roberts & Owen LLP is general counsel for the First Amendment Coalition and responds to FAC hotline inquiries. In responding to these inquiries, we can give general information regarding open government and speech issues but cannot provide specific legal advice or representation.