106-Day FOIA Delay Results in Lawsuit for University of Michigan

Photo by Ken Lund

When it comes to college sympathies, the Mackinac Center is split and takes no official side in the Michigan State University-University of Michigan rivalry.

But both are public entities, so we side with the taxpayers who fund the colleges when it comes to holding them — and the other 13 public universities in the state — accountable.

That’s why we have sued the University of Michigan for violating state transparency laws.

Shortly after the November election, University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel joined many students in protesting the election of President Donald Trump. The Mackinac Center works with (and against) elected officials of all political persuasions, but when the public university president used his position to host university-sponsored events and disparage the president-elect, we were curious.

A week after the presidential election, our news reporter filed a Freedom of Information Act request to find out what led to these political actions. In his request, he asked for any emails Schlissel sent regarding the president-elect.

By law, the university had five days to respond (which it failed to do), could request a 10-day extension (but only if it first responded within five days), and could require payment for documents (which it did). The university deposited our check before Christmas. Despite repeated claims that the information was coming, we still hadn’t received it by March 1. So we filed a lawsuit.

We eventually received some of the information we requested. According to the university, it took 2 hours and 45 minutes of staff time to find four emails. And after 106 days, we had documents.

But that’s not the end of the story. The university neglected to send over other documents that it labeled “advisory.”

“We believe that in this particular instance, public interest in encouraging frank communication between University employees outweighs the public interest in disclosure,” U-M said in a statement.

We disagree that it should take that long to gather and send public information and believe the university is violating state open records laws. It would also be interesting to see what U-M is trying to hide in its advisory emails. Is a public entity politicking with taxpayer dollars?

Mackinac Center attorney, and University of Michigan graduate, Patrick Wright sums up the case:

To borrow a phrase from the University of Michigan’s football coach, the Mackinac Center will fight for governmental transparency “with an enthusiasm unknown to mankind.” The documents are important, but at this point, it’s really about the delay. People and the press have a right to information no matter how embarrassing or inconvenient it might be to the public officials involved.

This is the second open records case the Mackinac Center is pursuing. The other involves a few documents that the state of Michigan took four months to deliver.

Both cases are vital for the people of Michigan. At a seemingly increasing rate, public entities are delaying the release of government information for months on end. An easy fix would be for the Michigan Legislature to clarify the FOIA law, putting in even stricter caps on when a public office must send out information and providing clear penalties if it doesn’t comply.

Until then, our legal team will keep standing up for taxpayers and their right to access public information.