FOIA audit results of Michigan’s 15 public universities by CMU SPJ students

Kudos to the members of the Central Michigan University Society of Professional Journalists chapter for their public records audit of Michigan’s 15 public universities. The results were shared in a guest column in Bridge this week.

The students asked for three records–all which should have been readily available for no charge. The audit sought sexual assault police reports, board of trustee expenses and presidential discretionary spending.

The results were disappointing but not unexpected. It would cost more than $20,000 to receive the documents from 12 of Michigan’s 15 public universities. The students’ requests were crafted specifically to make retrieval easy and to minimize the need for  “review.” In the Bridge column they ask rhetorically: “After all, how much redacting would need to be made from a university president’s expense report?”

Three of the universities, Michigan Technological University, Eastern Michigan University and Oakland University granted all three requests without charge. Lake Superior State University granted two of the requests also with no charge attached.

But others, like Michigan State University, estimated it would take 80 hours and a charge of at least $2,400  to search for the records with no assurance that additional fees not be incurred to MSU’s assistant general counsel, Ellen Armentrout.

The CMU SPJ public records audit results reflects a disturbing and pervasive attitude and practice among top level administrators at most of Michigan public universities.  FOIA was not intended as a way to discourage citizens from accessing information that they have already paid for with their tax dollars and, in the case of students, their tuition money and fees. to be a revenue generator for public bodies.

In fact, the FOIA specifically states: “A fee as described in subsection (1) shall not be charged for the cost of search, examination, review, and the deletion and separation of exempt from nonexempt information as provided in section 14 unless failure to charge a fee would result in unreasonably high costs to the public body because of the nature of the request in the particular instance, and the public body specifically identifies the nature of these unreasonably high costs.”

The Michigan Freedom of Information Act begins with a powerful statement  legislative intent: “It is the public policy of this state that all persons, except those persons incarcerated in state or local correctional facilities, are entitled to full and complete information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts of those who represent them as public officials and public employees, consistent with this act. The people shall be informed so that they may fully participate in the democratic process.”

The public, including students, have an absolute right to know about sexual assault police reports, board of trustee expenses and presidential discretionary spending on these campuses.  Ivory Tower administrators need to learn the lesson: they are not exempt from Michigan law.

 

 

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