Wednesday, October 4, 2017
Vice President for Legal Affairs
MIDLAND — The Mackinac Center for Public Policy and the University of Michigan have reached a settlement in a lawsuit over the university’s failure to comply with a Freedom of Information Act request. Under the terms of the settlement, the university agreed to release all of the information the Mackinac Center sued to obtain.
This legal incident began after the University of Michigan delayed and later refused to release all the emails that would fulfill a FOIA request by the Mackinac Center. The Center sued the state university on March 2, 2017, after waiting over 100 days for documents the school said would take less than three hours to collect. The same day the suit was filed, the university finally fulfilled the request, but only partially, disclosing just four of the 11 emails whose content matched the request. As a result of the settlement, all 11 emails have been released and are available online here.
The Center filed the FOIA request after Michigan President Mark Schlissel made disparaging comments about Donald Trump and the people who had voted for him following the 2016 presidential election. The university also hosted several events for students upset by the election results. These decisions drew criticism and anger from some supporters of President Trump.
Because the University of Michigan receives over $1 billion in taxpayer funds each year, counting state and federal revenues, and its president is a public employee, the Mackinac Center’s news website, Michigan Capitol Confidential, was interested in seeing if the university was remaining nonpartisan when engaging students about the presidential election.
On Nov. 16, 2016, Derek Draplin, a reporter for the Center, submitted a FOIA request for all emails President Schlissel had sent referring to Donald Trump between July 1 and Nov. 16 of that year. Draplin was curious about the discussions that influenced Schlissel’s remarks and the decision-making process that led to the university’s choice to host events for students who were upset about the election of President Trump.
“The University of Michigan is a public entity which receives more than $300 million in state funds,” said Patrick Wright, vice president of legal affairs at the Mackinac Center. “Taxpayers deserve to know that its leaders are treating students fairly regardless of political beliefs.”
In addition to releasing seven new emails as a result of the settlement, Michigan agreed to revise its FOIA practices, hire more staff to fulfill transparency requests, produce an annual compliance report and strive to complete 75 percent of FOIA requests without charging a fee. The joint statement agreed to by the Center and the university also calls on the Legislature to clarify the state’s FOIA law.
“Timely transparency in government is key to holding public officials accountable and citizens shouldn’t have to wait months for documents easily attainable,” Wright added. “People and the press have a right to this information, even if it’s embarrassing or inconvenient for the public officials involved. We agree with the University of Michigan that the Legislature should clarify the state’s transparency laws and no longer allow public entities nearly unlimited amounts of time to stall on releasing information.”
The content of the emails finally obtained through this lawsuit demonstrate that President Schlissel appears to have viewed his role concerning the presidential election from a partisan perspective and was critical and dismissive of Trump supporters. For instance, when discussing a speech he was to give to freshmen students, he stated that he didn’t want to “waste an important opportunity” to influence students who “are first time voters and thus special.” He also said the speech wasn’t meant to be “anti-Trump,” but he would “feel awful if Trump won the election.” The full content of these emails is available online here.
The Mackinac Center Legal Foundation has a separate lawsuit against the state of Michigan over documents the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality took four months to release regarding the Flint water crisis.
All additional information about this case can be found here: https://www.mackinac.org/MCPPvUofM.
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