Sunshine laws are essential tools that enable citizens to hold their government accountable. Unfortunately, it’s far too common for government to try to avoid doing what the law requires: disclose its records.
Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act requires a government body to respond within 5-15 days of receiving a request for information by giving a good-faith estimate of the costs and time required to fulfill the request. Once it receives a deposit, it must process the request in a reasonable time and produce the relevant records. The office may redact information, but only in a limited way.
That’s the law; the actual process is significantly different. Often, government bodies estimate absurd costs to force people to abandon requests. They can also not process the request for months, rendering the documents useless. Often, the documents are heavily and improperly redacted, forcing the requestor to sue to get the requested information.
At the Mackinac Center, we file hundreds of FOIA request each year, and we have seen this pattern of noncompliance countless times. It’s important to hold our government accountable, so we take legal action when it refuses to play by the rules.
In May 2020, we sought e-mails between state employees and the University of Michigan professors Gov. Gretchen Whitmer cited as experts who helped her prepare COVID-19 response plans. We did not receive the documents until October, and they were heavily redacted. The redactions were not reasonable and neither was the delay, and we sued to obtain the unredacted records.
Michigan State University was equally defiant. In June, we sought information about the firing of professor Stephen Hsu. But MSU did not release its records until after we filed suit in December. The delay was egregious because the university estimated it would only require 17 hours of work to fulfill the request. And, once again, the documents we received were heavily redacted.
In December, the Mackinac Center filed suit against the University of Michigan on behalf of the donor of an endowed gift. That donor had, in March, sought information about how his gift was being used. He did not receive all the requested records until late December, after the Center filed a lawsuit. U-M took more than 200 days to process a 7-hour request.
Universities aren’t the only culprit, though. In June, we filed a FOIA request with the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs, seeking copies of complaints against businesses alleged to have violated Gov. Whitmer’s COVID-related executive orders. After charging the Mackinac Center over $1,300, LARA failed to produce the records for over five months. It was only in November, after we had filed suit, that the department produced them.
It’s unfortunate these suits are necessary, given that the FOIA law is meant to encourage access to information. While many people cannot pursue lawsuits against illegal FOIA responses, the Mackinac Center is committed to holding our government accountable. If you would like to learn more about these (or future) cases, please follow along at mackinac.org/litigation/ cases.