Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act

True freedom, information, and action?

“This is just a modernization of Michigan's FOIA Act — long overdue — to provide some additional standardization and transparency.” – State Sen. Mike Shirkey

Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act, passed in 1976 in the wake of the Watergate scandal, is meant to improve public access to government documents.

Sadly, the law has fallen behind the times and needs to be revised to better suit today’s new technologies and societal practices. The law still operates as if the communication and storage methods of 1976 were still widely used. For example, public agencies do not fully take advantage of online databases or e-filing methods.

While FOIA law has been revised roughly a dozen times since its inception, a reform enacted in 2014, Public Act 563 of that year, brought significant changes including clearer standards on the fees that public agencies may charge in response to FOIA requests. Previously, there were only weak limits on how much Michigan public agencies were allowed to charge to fulfill a FOIA request. This left the door open for abuse; public agencies could overcharge on shipping, handling, and research fees.

For instance, the Mackinac Center’s Michael LaFaive submitted a FOIA request in March 2015 to the Michigan Liquor Control Commission. The commission’s response to LaFaive was that he would have to pay approximately $1,500 – in other words, 25 cents per page – for processing and copying fees for pages of a report that did not exist in a hard copy format.

The commission eventually relented when the Mackinac Center Legal Foundation sued. Senior Attorney Derk Wilcox of the Mackinac Center Legal Foundation said, “Taxpayers have a right to this public information. They should not be charged exorbitant amounts of money for documents that are rightfully theirs, nor should they be charged for virtual copies of public documents.”

Revisions to the law, which went into effect on July 1, 2015, reduce the likelihood of government agencies levying excessive fees, as they are now not allowed to charge more than 10 cents per sheet of paper.

Additionally, the Legislature mandated new fines on agencies that willingly and intentionally withhold information from requesting parties. Penalties range from $2,500 to $7,500 and are paid to the state.

People who believe they were overcharged for information can file a petition with a court. If the court decides that the public agency overcharged the inquiring party, the agency must pay up to $1,000 in punitive damages.

Finally, PA 563 limits the labor charges that a government office may impose, as it cannot “charge more than the hourly wage of its lowest-paid employee capable of searching for, locating, and examining the public records.”

This act clarifies the fee structure of FOIA requests, as well as addresses fee-related procedures of the law that have been long abused or ignored. This is a great start to modernizing the Freedom of Information Act to ensure transparency within the government and lower costs for the governed.