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Freedom of information - with exceptions

Dagmar BreitenbachApril 10, 2015

Germany's Freedom of Information law grants everyone the right to request information from the authorities. A high school student in Münster made use of the law and asked for the questions in his upcoming final exams.

Exam Folders on desks
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Simon Schräder officially and legally requested what most high school students would give their right arm for ahead of finals that begin in just a few days.

In March, the clever 17-year-old high school student from the western German city of Münster put in a Freedom of Information request to the North Rhine-Westphalian (NRW) Education Ministry, asking "for the papers of the central Abitur examinations in the senior classes of high school in the current school year." He used the alias Phillip Langen.

Simon sent the request via the Ask the State Internet platform. The site is operated by the Open Knowledge Foundation (OKF), an initiative that supports Germans who want to take a look at state documents in accordance with the country's 2006 freedom of information law (IFG).

Students seated at desks, studying
German high school students prepare for final examsImage: Imago/Jochen Tack

Simon Schräder is active in one of the OKF worldwide network's local German chapters helping people find information on issues from local community budgets to the availability of downtown parking. The young student says he didn't really expect to be sent the exam questions, but felt that it was worth a try. He was curious what the ministry would say.

As one would expect, the ministry politely declined Simon's request.

Handing out information would compromise the success of a government policy - in this case, final exams - the Education Ministry said in its response Thursday, also via the Ask the State platform. The earliest date Simon could expect to see the exam papers is after June 20, once all Abitur exams across NRW have been taken, corrected, grades entered, and final report cards issued, the ministry said.

The German student's request got quite a bit of national, and even international, media attention. It may have been unsuccessful, but it has certainly put a spotlight on the Freedom of Information Law.

The examinations from previous years, meanwhile, have been uploaded to the NRW Education Ministry's website to help students prepare for this year's finals, which, of course, will have different questions, but at least give students an idea of what to expect.