When the Mackinac Center opened more than 22 years ago, it faced an uphill battle to gain attention from the media. Now, the Center and the Michigan Press Association have teamed up to try to undo the damage inflicted on the Michigan Freedom of Information Act by an erroneous state Court of Appeals decision.
On May 11, the Center and the MPA filed a joint "friend of the court" brief with the Michigan Supreme Court, asking it to reverse a judgment that could shield criminal and improper government actions from scrutiny. The case arose from a citizen-journalist's attempt to determine whether teachers in the Howell Public Schools were illegally using the school district's e-mail system to conduct union business during a heated collective bargaining process. Using the Freedom of Information Act, he sought e-mails from the various union officials who taught at the school.
The trial court granted the FOIA request, but was overruled by the Court of Appeals, which took a narrow view of the term "public record" and declared the e-mails in question to be "personal," even though they pertained to collective bargaining between the teachers union and the district, obviously involving the expenditure of public money.
In the joint legal brief, Mackinac Center Legal Foundation Director Patrick Wright and MPA General Counsel Robin Luce Hermann noted that Michigan's FOIA was passed soon after Watergate and was intended to allow citizens to police the activity of government officials, since the public did not trust those officials to do so themselves. Unfortunately, the Court of Appeals' ruling would undermine the law's intent by essentially leaving the decision concerning which e-mails were "personal" and which were "public" to government supervisors, who may have every reason to bury inappropriate or illegal activity by their subordinates.
In a press release announcing the joint brief, Luce Hermann stated, "The outcome of this case is of vital interest to every newspaper in the state of Michigan because it will impact their ability to engage in reporting and inform citizens on the workings of government, including misuse of taxpayer money."
Wright later penned an Op-Ed on the case that appeared in the May 28 Detroit Free Press. He was also interviewed on "The Frank Beckmann Show" on WJR 760 AM in Detroit and WSJM out of St. Joseph. The Livingston County Press & Argus reported on the filing of the brief.
The Michigan Supreme Court is expected to act on the case by September or October. As the case proceeds, the Center will help the media defend a freedom of information meant to benefit everyone.