USC promises transparency but will begin charging to release public records

·2 min read

After being sued at least twice in recent years for withholding public records, the University of South Carolina says it will now charge to gather, review and release public documents.

The charges are allowed under state law. Other local and state agencies already charge the public and the media for access to records.

The university will charge $25 per hour to search and retrieve records, unless the requested documents include emails or texts, in which case USC will charge $40 per hour. It will cost $20 per hour to redact records and $.10 per page to print the documents, according to USC’s website. The charges will not apply to records requests that have already been filed.

South Carolina’s Freedom of Information Act allows public agencies to charge “reasonable fees,” but those fees may not exceed the hourly rate of the lowest paid person who’s qualified to gather the records.

“The University of South Carolina is committed to transparency and adhering to the SC Freedom of Information Act, FOIA, and we are making significant improvements in how FOIA requests are processed by increasing efficiency and providing better service to requestors,” USC spokesman Jeff Stensland said in an email. “As a result, the university will now charge reasonable fees allowable under the law to all requestors in order to recover costs associated with these improvements.”

The fees will not apply to records that “do not require any time for us produce, such as contracts, information presented at public meetings, etc,” Stensland said.

In recent months, USC has been changing how it handles FOIA requests. In January, USC hired an hourly employee to handle public records requests. In April, USC said it was planning to make the employee full time and to create an online portal to track the process of FOIA requests.

The move comes as USC has faced public scrutiny for allegedly bungling sexual harassment allegations. An article from The State, which revealed the allegations, was based on public records obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. Those records, which USC unlawfully withheld in 2020 and were only turned over following a lawsuit by The State’s parent company, would now cost money.

USC faced a similar public records lawsuit in 2019, when a private citizen in Charleston took USC to court for failing to produce public records within the legally required time frame, The State previously reported.

Early in Caslen’s presidency, multiple media outlets requested texts and emails of board of trustee members that showed coordination between board of trustee members and members of Gov. Henry McMaster’s staff to name Caslen president. The texts fueled a formal inquiry by USC’s accrediting body, which still has lingering effects for USC.