The Michigan Education Association’s attorney sent an email advising its members to make sure that all emails pertaining to the illegal activity of striking teachers not be released in a Freedom of Information request sent to their districts. Art Przybylowicz, the MEA’s general counsel, warned union members that the Mackinac Center for Public Policy had sent a FOIA to school districts asking for electronic correspondence regarding a strike.
Last week, MEA president Iris Salters sent an email to members asking about their willingness to allow the union to “initiate crisis activities” which could include “work stoppages.” Teacher strikes are illegal under Michigan law.
Przybylowicz cited the Michigan Court of Appeals ruling on the Howell Education Association vs. Howell Board of Education case. This ruling stipulated that email communications between public school employees in their capacity as members of the union were “personal emails” and thus not subject to FOIA.
“Thus, school districts should not be disclosing those types of e-mails in response to this inquiry,” Przybylowicz wrote in his email. “If you become aware that your school district is planning to disclose e-mails between staff members, please contact your UniServ Director.”
But Robin Luce-Herrmann, general counsel to the Michigan Press Association, said she thinks Przybylowicz has an overbroad interpretation of the Court of Appeals ruling. Herrmann said emails in the Howell case involving teacher/union members and the administration were released pursuant to FOIA. She said the Court of Appeals ruling said that emails were not considered “public records” solely because they were in a teacher’s email. Herrmann said emails related to “crisis activity” or “job action” involves teachers acting in their official capacity as public employers.
There is a motion that the Michigan Supreme Court reconsider the Howell Education Association vs. Howell Board of Education decision. Herrmann said the MEA’s overbroad interpretation of the ruling is one reason why the Supreme Court should take up the case.
The Mackinac Center Legal Foundation and the Michigan Press Association have jointly filed a legal brief in the case.
“One of our contentions has been that last year’s ruling would lead to public employees’ illegal activity being hidden from public scrutiny, thereby gutting the state’s FOIA law,” said MCLF Director Patrick Wright, who coauthored a joint amicus brief. “That concern has been heightened now that a school district has used the decision to thwart a request for emails discussing school employee strikes. Such strikes are illegal.”