BY MICHELE NAROV
Daily Staff Reporter
Published March 30, 2011
A request for public records has raised eyebrows and caused debate for some about the role and scope of a sunshine law in Michigan meant to make public entities more transparent.
The Mackinac Center for Public Policy recently filed requests under Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act to obtain copies of e-mails about the union dispute in Wisconsin sent between professors, faculty and staff at three public universities in Michigan.
The University of Michigan, Michigan State University and Wayne State University have not yet responded to the FOIA request from the Mackinac Center, the nonpartisan, non-profit organization in Midland, Mich. that studies state policies that has created discontent because of the nature of its request, which is focused on labor relations.
An article from Talking Points Memo originally publicized the requests on Tuesday. According to the article, the requests ask for all e-mails from employees working at the universities’ centers on labor research. Also requested were e-mails that contain the words “Madison,” “Wisconsin,” “Scott Walker” — Wisconsin's governor — or “Maddow” — in reference to MSNBC talk show host Rachel Maddow, who has reported on the recent controversy affecting Wisconsin labor unions.
University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald said the FOIA request submitted to the University of Michigan on Monday asked for e-mails from the University’s Labor Studies Center.
According to the Talking Points Memo article, a second request was submitted to the Douglas A. Fraser Center for Workplace Issues at Wayne State University last Friday. A third FOIA request was sent to Michigan State University’s School of Human Resources and Labor Relations, the article states.
The records request was filed by Ken Braun, managing editor of Michigan Capitol Confidential — the daily news wire service of the Mackinac Center.
The FOIA requests to follow the Wisconsin state Republican Party’s request for the e-mails of University of Wisconsin Prof. William Cronon, who publicly criticized the state’s Republican governor.
The request was intended to find evidence that Cronon had violated a Wisconsin law barring state employees from using state-funded resources, like their work e-mail, for partisan political purposes, according to a March 25 article in The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Through several public statements, the American Association of University Professors and American Historical Association opposed the effort to obtain Cronon’s e-mails.
Roland Zullo, a researcher at the University of Michigan's Institute for Research on Labor, Employment, and the Economy, said the effort in Wisconsin appears to be an attempt to go after a professor who spoke negatively about Walker.
“It seems as if what is happening here in Michigan is borrowed from what is happening in Wisconsin,” Zullo said. “It seems to be the case, but we don’t know yet for sure.”
According to Mackinac Center spokesman Michael Jahr, Michigan Capitol Confidential has used the FOIA apolitically, with several recent stories generated from or assisted by FOIA requests.
“The center has used Freedom of Information requests extremely effectively for a number of years both for research and analysis and investigative reporting,” Jahr said in an interview with The Michigan Daily.
Based on this history, he said he was surprised people reacted to the requests without inquiring about the reasons behind it. Jahr said he didn’t anticipate any public reaction before a story had been written and was unsure why other media sources reported solely on the request for information.
“I’ve worked at a number of media outlets over the years,” he said. “And it does seem to be unprecedented — the reactions and the response.”
Jahr refused to comment on the content or reasoning behind the FOIA request.
“I won’t be able to speak to the specifics of it until we have the information and hopefully a story to go with it,” he said.
Fitzgerald said he also thinks the media coverage is strange.
“I’m as perplexed as anyone as to why there’s so much media attention being made to a request for information,” he said. “That’s unusual. Most of these things don’t happen in the media spotlight. We don’t know what the record search will show, if anything, at this point.”
Zullo said the tactic of asking for information from faculty at a higher education institution is somewhat baffling to him.
“It is an interesting sort of political phenomenon for a think tank to ask for this sort of information from faculty at a university,” he said.
Zullo said there is a level of discomfort with information being requested in this manner for a faculty members.
“The real risk here is that e-mail is given out and basically cherry picked for statements that will attempt to embarrass or discredit a faculty member,” he said.
Zullo added that the work University faculty members partake in is in support of workers, worker’s rights and collective bargaining.
“It’s certainly possible to take some of the messages, pluck things out of context and have them used against us in some way,” he said. “And that, I guess, would be the biggest concern.”
Fitzgerald said the recent request will undergo the same process as the hundreds of other requests received by the University each year.