We Won a FOIA Battle

But the war continues

On Nov. 9, 2016, Mark Schlissel, the president of the University of Michigan, gave a speech on campus to students protesting the election of President Donald Trump.

“Your voices worked out to be a 90-to-10 decision in favor of the unsuccessful candidate yesterday,” Schlissel said to wide applause. “Ninety percent of you rejected the hate and fractiousness and longing for some idealized version of a non-existent yesterday that was expressed during the campaign.”

The Mackinac Center is a nonpartisan organization, proudly working with people of all political stripes to achieve free-market reforms. To cite a few examples, we’ve worked with Republicans on labor freedom, Democrats on criminal justice reform and people from both parties in opposing corporate subsidies.

But the University of Michigan is a public university, receiving around $300 million in state funds and nearly $1 billion total in taxpayer money. Citizens have a right to expect that those funds are not pushing one political agenda over another. So shortly after the Schlissel’s political speech, our news website, Michigan Capitol Confidential, filed a Freedom of Information Act request for emails from Schlissel mentioning the word “Trump.”

For more than 100 days, the university stalled. And when its officials finally fulfilled the request, they gave us only a few emails. So we took them to court to uncover the rest, ultimately reaching a settlement that gave us the emails, as well as paid our legal fees and required the university to establish more transparency.

As we noted in the Detroit News:

The newly released emails show Schlissel behaving in a partisan manner concerning the 2016 presidential election. Discussing an August convocation for new students — a few months before the election — he says he doesn’t want to “waste an important opportunity” to influence freshman who “are first time voters and thus special.” He also admits that he would “feel awful if Trump won the election.” After Trump’s election, Schlissel writes that he “can’t imagine lending one’s name to a Trump administration,” referencing faculty members potentially leaving UM for positions in the federal government. He added that he found it “ironic” that Trump supporters on campus feel marginalized by some of the university’s post-election actions.

This was a big story. Outlets covering our lawsuit included The Associated Press, Fox News, Michigan Radio, MLive, the Daily Caller, the Ann Arbor News, The Detroit News, CBS Detroit, WJR-AM, the Michigan Daily, the Detroit Metro Times, Accuracy in Academia, Campus Reform, the College Fix, Inside Higher Ed and more.

While the media attention was nice, the real story here is that government entities can delay releasing documents for months on end. This is the third time the Mackinac Center has dealt with an agency preventing the release of easily assembled public data. And when that happens to us, an organization with lawyers on staff and ready to file a lawsuit, we know it’s happening much more often to private citizens. We are working with organizations across the political spectrum to solve this problem.

A core mission of the Mackinac Center is government transparency, because people have a right to get information about things they are funding. We’ve sued for document from a Republican governor, a public university and a variety of local governments and school districts. And we’ll continue to work in the Legislature to make sure public entities operate under the glare of bright sunlight as much as possible.