This month the Michigan Supreme Court ruled on two issues that could have a serious influence on the rights provided through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). As with most FOIA cases, the issues of privacy vs. access to information engaged in battle. In this round, it appears the privacy won. Many have called these decisions a blow to the FOIA.
Both decisions involved public universities. The first decision involved state employee contact information. A case brought against the University of Michigan by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) Michigan for being refused access to certain employee information. In that case, the Court ruled that personal contact information, such as addresses and phone numbers, did not have to be provided to the AFT Michigan. This ruling was shocking to many, because information about state employees is generally considered public record. Many states provide online access where you can find contact information, salaries, and disciplinary records about state employees. Yet, in this case, the Michigan Supreme concluded that the privacy of these employees could be affected if their contact information were released.
In the second FOIA related decision, the Court ruled a Michigan State University campus police report could not be released to the University’s newspaper. The newspaper was denied access to the report even though the names of the offenders and the details of their offense had been made public. Despite the fact the information was technically already in the public domain, the Court decided that the police report should remain confidential.
Whenever our access to information is limited by the government, it is concerning. Yet, I cannot help but ask whether the public should really be privy to the home address and phone number of university employees. Isn’t it enough to have access to their job related information? Or are we entitled to more? Due to the legal influence of Supreme Court decisions in the US legal system, there is a very real possibility that other states could look at Michigan’s recent decision and follow its example. So, we may see similar cases in the future.
Fortunately, for now, there are still thousands of records that are available for the public to view, often online. To find access to public records across the U.S., visit the Free Public Records Directory to find records in your state of interest.