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The price of freedom

Free information comes at a price when dealing with some universities

February 13, 2012
Photo by Infographic by Kayley Sopel | The State News

Despite federal and state laws mandating transparency, many universities are flying under the radar by withholding crucial bits of information to be seen in a more positive light, some experts said.

Under Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, public bodies throughout the state are required to disclose requested information to the general public.

From her experience talking with journalists and students throughout the state, MSU journalism professor and president of The State News Board of Directors Jane Briggs-Bunting said many public bodies — particularly universities — are becoming more reluctant to release information.

“Public universities in Michigan tend to be less forthcoming than they should be,” Briggs-Bunting said. “Universities could easily release more (information) than they do — there’s an attitude of secrecy and a lack of transparency.”

Briggs-Bunting said with funding from students as well as the general public, universities and other public bodies should be willing to offer the full story as a way to build support and promote a better understanding of inside operations.

Although Michigan’s FOIA encourages openness, many public bodies avoid divulging information to protect themselves from negative comments or media coverage.

“Image is always an important thing for universities; … nobody likes to look bad in the public eye,” Briggs-Bunting said. “Transparency should be a key bedrock principle of any university.”

Experimenting with FOIA
After sending out the same FOIA request to all Big Ten universities and other universities within Michigan asking for the contracts of each university’s head men’s basketball coach and football coach, The State News collected data of response times and assessed fees.

Of those universities, eight responded within the allotted time period, two requested an extension of the deadline and three universities, including MSU, the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln responded late without requesting an extension.

Two universities — Penn State University and Northwestern University — were exempt from participation. FOIA laws differ from state to state.

Although most universities provided the information free of charge, the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Nebraska-Lincoln charged $18.50 and $15.75, respectively.

MSU’s FOIA Office is responsible for overseeing and facilitating the university’s compliance with Michigan’s FOIA.

According to an official from MSU’s FOIA Office, the university received 263 requests in 2011, which brought in approximately $7,000. The official said the university complies with its obligations and provides as much information as possible in all requests. Under FOIA, fees only are assessed if the request would result in unreasonably high costs to the public body.

Upon asking other student-run newspapers about their experiences sending FOIA requests to their university, many said they don’t have a problem getting information.

Eric Dresden, editor-in-chief of Central Michigan University’s newspaper, Central Michigan Life, said reporters send an average of one or two FOIA requests per week at little expense and only have had a few issues receiving information from CMU.

“Earlier this year, I requested documents from our College of Medicine. CMU told us we were going to have to pay some money for it,” Dresden said. “Then several more organizations FOIAed, and they just ended up releasing it.”

The right to know
FOIA requests are a tool to be used by the public, first put in place to create transparency within the government, Briggs-Bunting said.

During the 1960s and 1970s there was a heightened suspicion of government activities among U.S. citizens, ultimately creating the need for such legislation, Briggs-Bunting said.

“The laws were created initially because there was a need … public bodies were becoming increasingly secretive,” she said.

Nancy Costello, co-director of MSU’s Great Lakes First Amendment Law Clinic said the law helps keep the government on its toes and working like it should be.

The FOIA often can expose governmental missteps, corruption, or irresponsible spending of
citizens’ tax dollars. By giving citizens the ability to access this information, they have the opportunity to step in and put more pressure on public bodies to fix problems, Costello said.

“Sometimes it takes someone on the outside to shed light on how government works and how it could be working better,” she said.

Although FOIA requests primarily are used by journalists and lawyers, they were created for the use of average citizens, Costello said.

“People have a right to know things,” Costello said. “(The) government is working for the people and is at the will of people.”

Social relations and policy junior Brad Verona said he only has had to file a FOIA request once for a class, but believes they are a useful tool for the average person.

“It’s extremely important for tax payers to see how their money is being spent,” Verona said.

Adam Goldstein, attorney advocate at the Student Press Law Center, said many students might be unaware the government is required to disclose information.

“(Students) don’t know it applies to public colleges,” Goldstein said. “They think they have to be a lawyer or have a certain form — you really just have to put it in writing.”

Any public organization is required by law to fulfill written requests for information, although there are some exemptions to protect privacy, Goldstein said.

Limiting access
Since many news organizations have limited funds, public bodies might be using exuberant fees as a way to discourage them from filing requests, Briggs-Bunting said.

In a previous FOIA request sent from The State News to MSU’s FOIA Office in Nov. 2011 asking for personal files and investigation records on 13 university athletic officials, the office sent a response stating that estimated labor fees for more than 17 hours of work likely would exceed $280.

Many organizations also assume requests have little chance of being legally challenged since court cases can become expensive and time-consuming, Briggs-Bunting said.

“They assume that no one is going to push to get it,” she said. “They’re not deliberately trying to violate the law, but they’re skating awfully close to it.”

Lansing State Journal sports reporter and former State News reporter Joe Rexrode, who is responsible for covering MSU athletics, said unreasonably high fees in the past few years have forced him to become more selective when filing FOIA requests with MSU.

“It seems a lot more expensive than it used to be — money is so much tighter in the (news) industry,” Rexrode said. “We’ve FOIAed stuff, and it was several hundred dollars, so we dropped it.”

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