The University of Michigan is withholding some emails its president sent regarding President Donald Trump, claiming their content is protected under the Freedom of Information Act. The university, which took 106 days to respond to the open records request, claimed the content in those emails were “preliminary and advisory in nature.”
The Mackinac Center for Public Policy announced last Thursday that it is suing the university over a monthslong delay in completing its request for public information.
Though the university deposited a good-faith check from the Mackinac Center on Dec. 21, 2016, the Center didn’t receive the information until March 2. (FOIA law allows public institutions to charge fees for complying with open-records requests.)
At that time, the university released four emails from its president, Mark Schlissel, but said that other emails were exempt from the law’s requirements.
“Given the exemptions they claim, we have concern that the four emails provided are just the tip of the iceberg,” said Mackinac Center Legal Foundation Director Patrick J. Wright.
Michigan Capitol Confidential reported in early February that the Mackinac Center filed a FOIA request with the university on Nov. 16, 2016, asking for Schlissel’s emails containing the word “Trump.”
The request was filed after Schlissel made anti-Trump remarks at an on-campus protest on Nov. 9, the day after the election.
The Mackinac Center received the documents on March 2, 2017 — the day it filed the lawsuit and 106 days after it first filed its request.
“On the eve of Sunshine Week, when transparency in government is celebrated and promoted, this situation with U of M shows that we have a long way to go in educating public officials about accountability to the citizens they serve,” said Lisa McGraw, public affairs manager for the Michigan Press Association.
The FOIA office made it clear some documents are being withheld.
“A small number of internal messages containing preliminary and advisory material have been withheld pursuant to Section 13 (1) (m) of the Act, which allows the University to refrain from disclosing certain communications and notes of an advisory nature,” read a Feb. 9 response from the university. “We believe that in this particular instance, public interest in encouraging frank communication between University employees outweighs the public interest in disclosure.”
At the postelection protest on campus, Schlissel implied that students who voted for Trump voted for hate.
“Your voices worked out to be a 90/10 decision in favor of the unsuccessful candidate yesterday,” Schlissel told those at the protest. “Ninety percent of you rejected the kind of hate and the fractiousness and the longing for some sort of idealized version of a nonexistent yesterday that was expressed during (Trump's) campaign.” (The Michigan Daily has published a video of Schlissel’s speech.)
John Mozena, Mackinac Center vice president for marketing and communications, said in a press release that the FOIA request was only made because of Schlissel’s public comments.
“In his professional role as head of a public university, President Schlissel took a very public stance against President-elect Trump and the people who elected him,” he said. “Our CapCon team was interested in learning more about the decision-making process that led to the actions taken by this public university and its employee, and filed the FOIA request accordingly.”
On Jan. 12, the university’s FOIA office said the records search would be completed in 14 days. After the 14 days had passed, the office said on Jan. 27 that the request would take another seven to 10 days to complete. The records were not received after that time.
On Feb. 9, the university said a payment of $72.15 was required to receive the FOIA results, which the Mackinac Center paid.
The FOIA cost $126 to complete for 2 ¾ hours of work, yet 106 days passed before the Mackinac Center received the results of its request.
Four emails from Schlissel to administrators or regents were found in the university’s search, in addition to messages that were not released.
The University of Michigan received the highest appropriation of any institution of higher education in the state, with nearly $309 million in state funds in fiscal year 2016-17.