Before sending us 1,160 pages of emails, Boise State University sent us a bill.
The state’s largest public university, with a $274.6 million annual budget, threatened to charge Idaho Education News more than $700 for public records: emails mentioning polarizing political science professor Scott Yenor.
Eventually, the university walked back its demand. But the university also said that, in the future, charging for public records will become standard procedure.
State public records law allows — but does not require — public agencies to charge for labor costs, if it takes more than two hours to complete a public records request. And while media groups routinely file records requests, state law is designed to allow all Idahoans access to public records. If Boise State follows through on its plans, any member of the public could be on the hook to pay for public records.
On June 23, Idaho EdNews requested all emails to and from Boise State President Marlene Tromp that referenced Yenor. The request covered emails dating back to Oct. 31, 2021, when Yenor spoke at the National Conservatism Conference in Orlando, Fla. In this recorded speech, which quickly went viral, Yenor described career-oriented women as “medicated, meddlesome and quarrelsome,” and called colleges and universities “indoctrination camps” that undermine the family.
In requesting the emails, Idaho EdNews sought to get a better understanding of how the university responded to the firestorm, and a story that attracted national attention. Idaho EdNews also wanted a better sense of the backlash against Yenor — and whether supporters came to his defense. (Click here to read our in-depth investigation.)
Idaho EdNews asks for public records on about a weekly basis — and has never received a bill. And it’s not uncommon to ask for public officials’ emails. Idaho EdNews has filed similar records requests with Gov. Brad Little, the State Department of Education and the State Board of Education, among others.
A case in point: A year ago, Idaho EdNews asked Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin for emails referencing “indoctrination” or “critical race theory.” McGeachin’s office released these emails in full, and free of charge. And all that happened while McGeachin was embroiled in a separate, but related, battle over public records. The Idaho Press Club had sued McGeachin over her refusal to release unredacted comments to her education task force to several media outlets, including Idaho EdNews. The Press Club won this lawsuit, and a judge ordered McGeachin to pay nearly $29,000 in legal fees.
However, McGeachin turned over these emails without incident, despite her public feud with Idaho media groups.
But Boise State fought our request.
On July 8, the university’s public records coordinator said he had spent 10 hours reviewing the requested emails, and said Idaho EdNews already owed $323.52 for eight billable hours of work. Redacting the emails — and determining which emails are exempt from disclosure — would require an additional 10 hours of billable time. That would have brought the price tag to more than $700.
“The university can invoice this ($323.52) charge to you now or send a full invoice once the response to your request is complete,” wrote Rob Adelson of the university’s office of general counsel. “Which do you prefer?”
Idaho EdNews objected because the request for a bill was unusual, especially coming from a large public agency.
On July 19, Adelson wrote a second email. He said the university’s costs were “accurately reported,” and could be confirmed through tracking software.
Adelson also outlined the process of determining which emails were public record. Some emails were exempt from release under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA, a federal law. Others were exempt under various clauses in state law — which protect attorney-client communications, personnel records, and personal information.
Ultimately, Boise State released 1,160 pages of emails. Some records were duplicative; for example, Boise State sent two copies of an online petition demanding a sexual discrimination investigation against Yenor, including the nearly 8,000 names on those petitions. Redactions were limited; for example, the names and email addresses of students’ parents were blacked out, in the interest of FERPA compliance.
Adelson said Boise State has rarely charged for public records requests. But because of a “rapid increase” in records requests, he said, the university will bill for records in the future, when requests take more than two hours to complete.
“The University will waive the costs of our review in this instance — or rather, stated another way, the University will bear the costs instead of Idaho Education News,” Adelson wrote on July 19.
A public agency subject to the state’s public records law, Boise State University will receive $124.6 million of taxpayer money in 2022-23. The balance of its budget, an additional $150 million, comes from student tuition and fees.