Public Radio Misses Point of U-M’s Open Records Deceptions

University mischaracterized nature of documents to prevent disclosure

In a recent column, Michigan Public Radio commentator Jack Lessenberry weighed in on a legal settlement between the Mackinac Center for Public Policy and the University of Michigan over the school’s efforts to keep hidden certain emails written by the university president Mark Schlissel.

The emails were related to university officials’ reactions to Donald Trump’s presidential election victory.

Lessenberry shows concern that U-M took 100 days to respond to a records request submitted under Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act.

“As a citizen, the only thing I found objectionable is that the university stonewalled the request for these emails. For me, the Mackinac suit’s most positive result was this: The U of M agreed to hire more staff to fulfill transparency requests without charging for most of them,” Lessenberry wrote.

ForTheRecord says: Citizens who care about transparency in government should be even more concerned that officials at U-M misrepresented the contents of public records in a bid to keep their contents hidden. Such actions could do more to subvert the Freedom of Information Act than even excessive delays.

The FOIA law exempts from disclosure internal policy discussions that it defines as: “Communications and notes within a public body or between public bodies of an advisory nature to the extent that they cover other than purely factual materials and are preliminary to final agency determination of policy or action.”

Two of the emails that university tried to keep hidden were of Schlissel sharing his thoughts on a news article about a U-M professor ranting about Trump.

One email detailed who Schlissel had contacted in the wake of the Trump presidential victory, and in another, Schlissel shared his thoughts with his predecessor at the university, Mary Sue Coleman.

None of the seven emails the university withheld appeared to contain any information that could be construed as determining its policies or actions. As such, they did not meet the FOIA law’s standards for nondisclosure. Instead, the emails were apparently characterized as policy-related in an attempt to hide certain comments by the U-M president that he and his colleagues would prefer not be seen by the public.

The Mackinac Center incurred $7,914 in legal fees to get U-M to hand over those emails. If the Mackinac Center had not taken legal action, it would not have received those emails. This is an obstacle that few private citizens can overcome when seeking information about the actions of their state government and institutions.

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