Special Report { High fees are keeping public information secret.

Hawaii's Public Records: Law's Creators Didn't Expect Cost To Be An Issue

Nathan Eagle/Honolulu Civil Beat

Editor's Note: Read Civil Beat's series on the cost of Hawaii's public records here.

In 1993, a University of Hawaii student asked the Honolulu Police Department for the names and titles of its employees who had been suspended or discharged.

HPD responded with a bill for $20,000. That sparked a lawsuit and eventually spurred the Hawaii Office of Information Practices to finally set rates for how much agencies can charge to find and process public records requests.

But despite the fee structure that’s now in place — or arguably because of it — cost continues to stifle public access to government records.

UH journalism professor Gerald Kato says the price HPD wanted to charge for its disciplinary records was an obvious tactic to get the students to drop their request.

Faced with the high estimate, the students sought and received help from OIP, which administers the Uniform Information Practices Act, Hawaii's public records law. A three-year legal battle ensued, ending with the students winning a historic ruling from the state’s highest court.

In its November 1995 decision, the Hawaii Supreme Court underscored that police disciplinary records are public. But the ruling also highlighted the fact that OIP had never addressed fees as the UIPA had mandated seven years earlier.

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