lose a powerful means of controlling their government if the Michigan Supreme
Court allows a lower court decision to limit access to public records. The
flawed decision would conceal government employees’ use of public resources for
private gain, partisan politics or even illegal activity.
The Freedom of
Information Act allows citizens to view what public servants produce with
public dollars. Using FOIA, citizens can access almost all government records,
including electronic documents such as emails.
Most of the time, FOIA
is a quiet workhorse of public policy research and journalism. But sometimes
it’s at the heart of big news. Kwame Kilpatrick is now the former mayor of
Detroit partly because he used public resources to document his misconduct.
The Michigan Supreme
Court will consider a challenge to the Court of Appeals decision in Zarko v.
Howell Education Association. The late Chetly Zarko was a citizen activist who
sought school emails to discover whether union officials illegitimately used
public resources for lobbying.
Lower courts denied
Zarko’s access to the emails, redefining “public record” to exclude “unofficial
By definition, improper
behavior is not official business, and that is the problem with the ruling.
School districts are already citing the flawed decision as a reason to refuse
our FOIA requests for official emails discussing plans for teacher strikes,
which are illegal in Michigan. If the current court ruling stands, the public
will have no right to see whether school employees are using tax-funded email
systems to plan illegal activity.
Not only is FOIA under
attack in the courts, but some of FOIA’s defenders are faltering. The legacy
news media once vigorously defended the public’s right to know what government is
up to. But now some seem to favor limiting FOIA.
When the Mackinac Center
requested Michigan State Police documents detailing the use of huge federal
grants, the police billed us $7 million, and some editorial voices accused us
of asking for too much information. Months later when the ACLU asked the state
police for other documents, the department billed the ACLU millions of dollars.
But this time, the professional journalists voiced outrage, and the police
A Mackinac Center FOIA
request in April sparked a national debate over proper use of public university
resources (see story on Page 3). We even received violent threats because of
it. Editors at The Washington Post, Lansing State Journal and elsewhere
accused us of attempting to chill academic freedom. (They eventually published
our full rebuttals once it was clear Wayne State University had indeed used
public money for questionable purposes.)
Thankfully, the legacy
media has not completely abandoned its support of FOIA. The Michigan Press Association
joined the Mackinac Center in legal briefs arguing for reversal of the Zarko
decision. It’s a contest we must win if citizens are to retain a means of
controlling their government.