Should you scale back a public records request?

Every once in a while, a government official will ask me to scale back my public records request. They usually ask me to make a “more focused” request that doesn’t involve them hunting down so many documents. Sometimes I agree and sometimes I don’t. It depends on their reasoning and how badly I need the records.

I encountered this exact scenario today and wanted to tell you about it. I knew this particular North Carolina official was going to ask me to reduce my request. He sent me an e-mail a while ago and basically said, “Let’s talk.” That’s usually code for “please don’t make me get all these documents!”

The official explained to me that another media outlet had requested 15,000 e-mails and that he has been swamped going through them all to redact private info. I immediately asked who made the request and what they are getting. After all, public records requests are a matter of public record, too!

He told me all the details and mentioned how most, if not all, of the public records requests fall on his shoulders. Sure, a lawyer sometimes helps out and redacts private info, but lawyers cost a bunch of money. So he is usually stuck reading through every page himself.

The official told me he would get all the documents I requested if I still wanted them, but it was clear from his sad sounding voice that he was hoping I’d change my mind and scale it back. I had a decision to make. In the end, I decided that while I want the records, I don’t necessarily need them right this instant. So, I agreed to scale it back.

I’m still getting plenty of documents, but I also achieved something else today. I showed the public official that I’m a reasonable person, and I’m not just filing records requests without any thought. It’s important to pick your battles.

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