Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act allows citizens access to public records from any state institution, including public universities.
The law, passed in 1976 just two years after the Watergate scandal led to President Richard Nixon’s resignation, is designed to keep government transparent and to allow citizens access to information.
While any citizen of any age can use the FOIA law, it is often associated with journalists who use it to keep watch on public entities. Reporters from the largest newspapers in the state to student journalists have used the law to gain access to information, enlightening the public and holding the government’s feet to the fire in the process.
But the law has been criticized by some free press and open government advocates for being too weak, allowing for public bodies to twist the law and keep information in the dark. A number of legislative fixes have been proposed, including one signed into law earlier this year.
But what kind of information is considered public in the first place?
Under the law, “public bodies,” including state and local governments, school boards, public universities, and other government agencies, are required to disclose information when requested by a citizen. These records can include expense accounts, rules, policy, voting records, most emails between public employees, meeting minutes and more.
Not included under the law: Information that would constitute an invasion of an individual’s privacy, information that could interfere with police investigations, trade secrets, medical records that would reveal someone’s identity, information that could endanger police officers, information that could compromise an investigation, and more. It is up to the public body to determine if any of the information requested meets this criteria.
The public body is required to respond within five business days, except in “unusual circumstances” that require an extension of up to 10 days. The requested record’s medium — physical, digital or otherwise — is irrelevant to its accessibility.
However, the public entity has the right to charge fees for access to information. The fees are limited to any mailing costs and labor, and they cannot exceed the hourly pay of the agency’s lowest-paid employee deemed capable of doing the work. There is no maximum fee.
A journalist or any other citizen can request the fee be waived by arguing the requested information is in the “public interest,” but it is up to the public body to determine for itself what is in the public interest.
The charges are intended to keep taxpayer costs down and were intended to by the law’s makers to be rare. However, public bodies have increasingly used fees as a de facto denial of sorts. If an entity wanted to keep public information in the dark, for example, it could conceivably charge the requester high costs for copies, labor and other expenses.
For average citizens, and even for many media companies, high fees can be a no-go and can prevent them from gaining access to information.
Gov. Rick Snyder signed a bill into law earlier this year that attempts to remedy this situation. The new law, which goes into effect July 1, amends the FOIA law to limit copy fees to 10 cents per page and to allow citizens seeking records to sue the public body if they feel the fees are excessive.
As far as actual denials go, the requester has two courses of action after being turned down: appeal or sue.
Citizens can appeal their denied FOIA requests to the head of the public entity by laying out a case for overturning the denial. For instance, if a student at Central Michigan University has a request denied by the general counsel’s office, he or she could appeal to President George Ross’ office, as CMU Insider did last year.
The public body head would then have 10 days to respond.
If that fails, the citizen can sue the public body for the information. Should the citizen win the case in court, the institution could be ordered by the judge to pay any attorney fees, in addition to releasing the requested information.
Who can request information?
Journalists, political organizations and lawyers most typically use the law, but it is available for anyone to utilize.
Anyone can write a FOIA request, either via email or snail mail. One’s place of residence, age and occupation do not matter. Prisoners, however, are not entitled to write a request.