I agree in principle with this editorial in the New York Times. Excessive fees should not be charged to read public records:
One bright spot of the Trump era is a greater public understanding of the rule of law and the institutions and individuals who sustain it.
But concerned citizens who wish to keep up with court cases — not to mention journalists covering them — face a barrier: the byzantine and overly expensive Public Access to Court Electronic Records system, more commonly known as Pacer.
Pacer, a 30-year-old relic that remains unwieldy to use, is a collection of online portals run by the administrative arm of the federal court system. It was designed, at least in principle, to provide online access to the more than one billion court documents that have been docketed in federal courts across the country since the advent of electronic case filing.
But the public can gain access to these public documents online only by paying significant fees. Pacer charges 10 cents per page to view electronic court documents — or up to $3 for documents exceeding 30 pages, which are common. It’s easy to burn up $10 just by looking up rudimentary information about a single case.
But I think this is a bridge too far:
here’s also an admirable bill that was introduced last year in Congress, the Electronic Court Records Reform Act, that goes a step further than what is being sought in the class-action suit. It would make all documents filed with the federal courts available free to the public. (In 2017, the Supreme Court, often a late adopter of new technologies, made virtually all of its new court filings freely available online.) The legislation also would mandate needed updates to Pacer, including making documents text-searchable and linkable from external websites.
The federal government shouldn’t be in the business of financing commercial news organizations. Web sites, particularly web sites that can support significant numbers of concurrent users while maintaining reasonable page load times, are expensive to build, maintain, and host. They aren’t “free”.
The Times is rent-seeking here. Fees should be whatever are necessary to keep the site going rather than being set at a level that defrays the costs of companies that turn around and charge for their papers or access to their web sites.