Bentley Library faces lawsuit over access to anti-immigration activist’s documents

Wednesday, October 18, 2017 - 5:20pm

The Bentley Historical Library

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The University of Michigan is allegedly blocking the release of records donated by retired ophthalmologist John Tanton, an activist who opposes immigration and founded the Federation for American Immigration Reform, according to the Detroit Free Press. FAIR says it is a nonpartisan organization representing “concerned Americans” on the topic of immigration, while Tanton is considered by the Southern Poverty Law Center to be the “architect of the modern anti-immigrant movement.”

Beginning in 1984, Tanton donated several documents, many of which express his anti-immigration views, to the Bentley Historical Library at the University. However, only 14 of the 25 boxes he has donated are open to the public; 11 are classified until 2035.

According to the Free Press, in December 2016 immigration attorney Hassan Ahmad filed a Freedom of Information Act request to gain access to the 11 boxes; he argued the records should be made public seeing as Tanton’s anti-immigrant sentiments are relevant to the views and policies of President Donald Trump, which tend to negatively affect immigrants. When Ahmad was denied these documents, he filed a lawsuit with the Michigan Court of Claims.

Ahmad told the Free Press it is important for the public to know about Tanton’s racist actions and the effects they could have on immigrants in the United States.

"The organizations founded by Dr. John Tanton are currently informing U.S. immigration policy," Ahmad said. "I think the public interest is served by investigating the connection between his thought and the current immigration policies. The rise of white nationalism, as we've seen in Charlottesville, seem to make this all the more important. … It's important for us to be aware of how his thought may be poisoning our policies."

Ahmad said the closed records include FAIR’s meeting minutes, Tanton’s private correspondence and folders addressing immigration, among other documents.

In an interview, Terry McDonald, director of the Bentley Library, explained the library has 11,000 collections. About 6,000 have been given by individuals, while the rest have been provided by University units and departments.

McDonald said it is not unusual to have a conversation with a donor about when the contents of his or her donation will be made public.

“When an individual is giving you their collection, especially if it involves their own lifetime, they frequently ask about the possibility of the collection being closed for some period of time, and they’re usually thinking about the people that they interacted with, that sort of thing, kind of not being around when this opens,” he said. “It’s a pretty standard conversation with an individual donor of private papers or their personal archive about whether or not they want it to be open immediately, or open at some point in the future.”

McDonald said certain collections have restrictions.

“This is not about Tanton, this is about a pretty common conversation that we have with donors when they think about or agree to giving us their collections … exactly when will this open,” he said.

McDonald highlighted the 14 public boxes have been used for research.

“A substantial portion of the collection is open and has been used by researchers, and has been used by the researchers that are unfavorable to (Tanton),” McDonald said. “So it’s not as though you can’t use this at all.”

McDonald said the library has also been collecting and archiving the websites of Tanton’s organizations; these archives are accessible online.

He also explained the legal issue at hand is whether a public university can make such commitment to a donor to keep their documents private.

“That’s actually a pretty significant question for archives at all the public universities, because, of course, it’s standard professional practice to have this conversation,” he said. “Our desire is always to have things open ultimately, but in some cases in order to have that open over some length of time we will agree to have it closed for some period of time.”

McDonald said the library takes no position on Tanton, his causes or the content of the collection; he said the library will maintain the agreement unless they are asked to do otherwise by the University or the court.

University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald wrote in an email there is not much information to share given the lawsuit.

“It is important to note that many of the papers are already available through the Bentley Library and others will be available at a later date, under the terms of the gift agreement with the donor,” Fitzgerald wrote.