The CMU chapter of Society of Professional Journalists unveiled the hidden cost of obtaining public information at a presentation and panel discussion for their state-wide Freedom of Information Act audit Wednesday at 7:30 p.m.
Arielle Hines, the president of SPJ and the editor of CMU Insider, spearheaded the audit with the help of several SPJ members. The team sent three identical FOIA requests to 13 different public universities in Michigan, requesting sexual assault reports, board of trustees expenses, and university president expenses.
They discovered it would collectively cost more than $19,000 to obtain these records for every university.
Hines said the audit showed information is not as public as it is made out to be.
“What we found was that the ability to get public information in Michigan is basically non-existent,” Hines said. “Newspapers do not have thousands of dollars to pay for the requests.”
The Freedom of Information Act is a law in Michigan intended to create a climate of open information from public government entities, such as universities and city commissions. As the audit results indicate, this is not how it plays out in practice.
Hines presented the findings and the panel was moderated by Tim Boudreau, a CMU faculty member in the journalism department
Boudreau said the event was intended to be an open dialogue between the audience and panelists about the issues surrounding open information.
Panelists in attendance were Paul Egan, reporter for the Detroit Free Press, Lonnie Scott, executive director for Progress Michigan, Jarrett Skorup, policy analyst for Mackinac Center, Lisa Yanick, reporter for The Morning Sun, John Irwin, CMU Insider founder and reporter for Automotive News, and Hugh Madden, communications director for Progress Michigan.
Despite their various backgrounds, panelists were united in their support of FOIAs.
“As citizens and as students, it’s a way to get information,” Skorup said. “FOIA is an important tool for everybody.”
Yanick said the FOIAs were a way to dig into larger issues. She applauded the SPJ chapter’s findings.
“It’s a really good start of a spotlight on the disparities between universities and what they charge for FOIAs,” Yanick said.
FOIA requests were sent to Western Michigan University, Lake Superior State University, Ferris State University, University of Michigan, Central Michigan University, Wayne State University, Eastern Michigan University, Saginaw Valley State University, Michigan State University, Grand Valley State University, and Michigan Tech.
CMU offered the board of trustees’ expense reports for free, charged about $195 for the president’s expense reports, and about $245 for the sexual assault reports.
The highest amount charged was from Michigan State University, at a total of about $5,800 for all three categories. The lowest was from Michigan Tech University and Eastern Michigan University, who offered all of the information for no cost.
“Eastern gave the information for free, so that shows that it’s possible,” Hines said.
The fees involved were specified as costs of labor to review and compile the information.
Skorup said the information requested seems important enough to be pre-gathered and able to be accessed for very little cost in very little time. It should not be expensive to compile statistics that are already gathered.
“This surprises me because the main parts of the cost is the expense reports and sexual assaults,” Skorup said. “It seems to me that there would be an administrator tracking this information.”
Egan said there seems to be a reluctance to provide information from public institutions.
“Instead of the mindset being that we have public information and to release it unless there’s a compelling reason not to, the mindset is, this is our information and let’s not release it unless we have to,” Egan said.
Scott said legal action is a common necessity when dealing with FOIA requests.
“A lot of times an attorney is your only option if you can’t pay what they’re asking,” Scott said.
Boudreau said a CMU representative was invited to the panel, but they declined.
You can read the full audit at spjcmufoiaaudit.wordpress.com.