LANSING, Mich. — The Michigan Supreme Court yesterday ruled in two Freedom of Information Act disputes affecting state universities and when personal information can become public. The "FOI side" lost in both decisions.
In one case, the court unanimously expanded what is exempt from public disclosure by redefining information "of a personal nature."
The University of Michigan in 2004 had rejected a FOIA request by a labor union seeking the home addresses and telephone numbers of employees who didn't consent to being listed in the school's faculty and staff directory. Although Washtenaw County Judge Timothy Connors ruled the information was protected under FOIA's privacy exemption, the Michigan Court of Appeals reversed his decision, saying addresses and phone numbers do not reveal intimate or embarrassing details of people's private lives. The case is Michigan Federation of Teachers and School Related Personnel v. University of Michigan.
As a result, the high court decided to redefine its interpretation of FOIA's privacy exemption to include "private or confidential information relating to a person." It said university workers would suffer an unwarranted invasion of privacy if their information was given to the Michigan Federation of Teachers and School Related Personnel.
Disclosing addresses and phone numbers "would not shed light on whether the University of Michigan and its officials are satisfactorily fulfilling their statutory and constitutional obligations and their duties to the public," Justice Robert Young Jr. wrote in the opinion.
The university did release employees' names, job titles, work address, wages and other information to the union.
Herschel Fink, a lawyer specializing in FOIA and media law, criticized the ruling "as a bad development for the public."
"There's a steady erosion of what is public and a steady expansion of what is private," Fink said. "Every 10 years, the (Michigan) Supreme Court redefines what the privacy exemption means and makes it broader."
The court, however, cited concerns about telemarketers, junk mail and the possibility of workers' identifying information falling into the hands of disgruntled medical patients or ex-spouses. All seven justices agreed to expand the privacy exemption, though Justices Marilyn Kelly and Elizabeth Weaver dissented from exempting the addresses and phone numbers of all University of Michigan employees, not just those who refused to be listed in the school directory.
The Supreme Court also reversed the appeals court in a second decision yesterday, State News v. Michigan State University.
In 2006, Michigan State University's campus newspaper, The State News, submitted a FOIA request for a campus police incident report about an assault in a dorm room. Two non-students and a student were arrested on suspicion of threatening a non-student with a gun, pouring gasoline on him and threatening to light him on fire. The school refused to release the report, citing privacy and law enforcement exemptions, but some information later became public anyway.
Ingham County Judge Joyce Draganchuk upheld the university's decision, while the appeals court ruled that the passage of time — including criminal proceedings against the dorm assailants — likely strengthened The State News' case.
The high court reversed that analysis, saying public bodies' FOIA actions must be judged from the time they decide to release or not release documents.
"Subsequent developments are irrelevant to that FOIA inquiry," Young wrote in the 7-0 decision. Those seeking information are free to submit another FOIA if they think circumstances have changed since an initial FOIA request, Young said.
Fink, who represented The State News on appeal, said the decision "seems to stand common sense on its head."
The court did not rule whether the police report should be public but told the trial judge to reconsider whether it can be split into exempt and nonexempt material.