Faculty concerned about FOIA of personal e-mails

Allison Kruske/Daily
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BY KAITLIN WILLIAMS
Daily Staff Reporter
Published April 4, 2011

The University's lead faculty governing body discussed at their weekly meeting yesterday how to handle a Freedom of Information Act records request filed with the University on March 17 seeking the release of personal work e-mails of faculty in labor studies departments.

The FOIA request was filed with the University by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy — a nonpartisan, non-profit policy organization in Midland, Mich. — to obtain e-mails that contain information regarding the public union dispute in Wisconsin. Similar requests have also been filed with Michigan State University and Wayne State University.

Specifically, the request sought e-mails containing the words “Wisconsin,” “Scott Walker” or “Maddow” — returning to the Republican Wisconsin governor and MSNBC talk show host rachel Maddow. This follows the Wisconsin Republican Party’s FOIA request for the e-mails of University of Wisconsin Prof. William Cronon, after he publicly criticized Walker.

Suellyn Scarnecchia, vice president and general counsel at the University, attended the Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs meeting yesterday to explain the FOIA request and garner the opinion of the members for how to further deal with the matter.

Scarnecchia distributed a letter from John Dowling, senior university legal counsel at the University of Wisconsin, to Stephan Thompson, the member of the Wisconsin GOP who filed the records request for Cronon’s e-mails. The letter outlined what criteria Dowling was planning to include in the FOIA request.

Scarnecchia said Michigan’s FOIA law is different from Wisconsin’s in terms of what information can be exempted, since in Michigan information in e-mails considered “private,” “preliminary” or “advisory” would be blocked out in response to a request.

Following her presentation, SACUA members and guests voiced their concerns about what the records request meant for University faculty.

SACUA Secretary John Lehman, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, asked Scarnecchia if she knew how far back the University’s e-mail archive went and if faculty members were expected to search the entire system for the request. Scarnecchia responded that the amount of e-mails saved varies among schools and that time and funding restrictions make the amount of searching necessary to respond to each record request different.

Peggie Hollingsworth, president of the Academic Freedom Lecture Fund, said at the meeting the situation is reminiscent of McCarthyism because the records requests is intended to find out if Cronon had violated a Wisconsin law barring state employees from using state-funded resources, like their work e-mail, for partisan political reasons.

“I don’t think you can talk about academic freedom without talking about freedom of speech,” Hollingsworth said.

SACUA Chair Ed Rothman, a University professor of statistics, motioned for the committee to submit a recommendation to the Civil Liberties Board at the University in response to the FOIA request that will express their feelings on the matter. Other SACUA members seconded the motion.

“If we let this simply slide by we will not be serving our community well,” Rothman said

SACUA discusses potential changes to trespass rules

Scarnecchia also distributed a summary of the University’s current trespass policy and a set of proposed changes to the policy to members at yesterday’s meeting.

She said she was reviewing the policy at the request of University President Mary Sue Coleman following several recent high-profile cases, including former Michigan assistant attorney general Andrew Shirvell’s ban from some University premises following his alleged stalking of Michigan Student Assembly President Chris Armstrong.

According to Scarnecchia, the University issued an estimated 2,000 trespass orders over the last decade, one of which was the alleged forcible resignation of former University Prof. Andrei Borisov — a case in which SACUA’s Faculty Hearing Committee issued a 55-page report last year claiming University officials had violated Borisov’s rights and academic freedoms.

Scarnecchia said trespass orders are only issued to individuals affiliated with the University under “exceptional” circumstances when safety is threatened.

SACUA Vice Chair Gina Poe, an associate professor of anesthesiology and molecular and integrative physiology, said she thinks the proposed 30-day time lapse before an individual issued a trespass order can appeal the charge should be shortened because University employees can’t be away from their work for 30 days without facing serious setbacks.

Scarnecchia said there is not currently a time set for requesting an appeal and a shorter period is negotiable. However, policy allows for a review of the issued trespass order within 24 hours, during which the decision can be speedily overturned.

Rothman said speediness is not the only issue he has with the current appeal process. He said he dislikes that the appeal goes through the chief of the Department of Public Safety and suggested that a small committee be formed for “expeditious” and “confidential” overturn of trespass issues.