Proponents of legislative reforms to improve South Carolina’s Freedom of Information Act didn’t get everything they had hoped for in the bill that passed on the last day of the session. But the bill came close, and it should be regarded as a victory for open government and citizens’ ability to gain access to public information.
Another reason this bill is so welcome is that it was more than seven years in the making. South Carolina was at the forefront four decades ago when it first passed the Freedom of Information Act. But in recent years reformers have struggled to fine-tune the law to make it easier for private citizens and the media to challenge efforts by public officials and agencies to conduct their business behind closed doors.
Over the past seven years, reform efforts have fallen short, often because of procedural roadblocks in the S.C. Senate. That might have been the case again this year, as a single senator sought to halt the bill because of a provision that would have established an Office of Freedom of Information Act Review.
Under that provision, a hearing officer would settle disputes over requested information rather than forcing those seeking information to file a lawsuit, hire a lawyer and take the case before a circuit judge. Sen. Margie Bright Matthews, D-Columbia, objected, saying that creating the new office would be too expensive.
Her objection killed an almost identical bill last year, and this year, senators decided to drop the section creating a hearing officer and pass the rest of the bill. While eliminating the hearing officer was regrettable, lawmakers did succeed in requiring an initial hearing within 10 days and a decision from the court within six months in most cases, which at least speeds the process.
But despite the setback, we think lawmakers made the right decision in moving forward with other much-needed reforms.
Under the new law, for example, public bodies have 10 days to give a yes or no to a FOIA request and 30 days to respond. Under the old law, public groups had 15 days to respond, and that response could simply be an acknowledgment of receipt, allowing the agencies to drag out the request indefinitely.
The law also limits the amount agencies can charge for providing public documents to the standard charge for producing copies. They also cannot charge for existing electronic records.
In the past, agencies often have charged exorbitant prices for copies to discourage requests for information.
Significantly, under the new provisions any recording made on a police dash cam that involves a death, injury, property damage or use of deadly force must be made available to the public unless specifically blocked by a Circuit Court judge.
The law also establishes civil penalties in addition to existing criminal penalties for knowingly violating the law. Civil fines are $500.
But the law also has provisions to protect public agencies from frivolous requests, allowing agencies to ask for a hearing on requests they regard as overly burdensome.
We hope that reformers will continue to push for provisions that allow South Carolinians to use the law without filing a lawsuit. But this law nonetheless is a big step forward.
After seven years, it’s about time.