Faculty, staff reminded of what's covered by the FOIA
In a typical calendar year, the university handles more than 400 requests for information under the state's Freedom of Information Act. Some requests lead to stories in the local or national media.
Most, however, don't make news when they are submitted. But that's exactly what happened last week with a request for university email messages that may contain certain key words associated with the political battle in Wisconsin over labor unions.
As the university works to determine what records may be responsive to this request, officials will, as they do with every request under the FOIA, weigh the university’s obligation for disclosure against exemptions provided in the state law.
There are several exemptions. They range from personal information, when disclosure would be a clearly unwarranted invasion of someone’s individual privacy, and confidential research-related information to students records that are protected under the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.
The stories about this request also have led some to seek a better understanding of how FOIA works in at the university.
The Michigan Freedom of Information Act (Public Act No. 442 of 1976), establishes procedures to ensure every citizen’s right of access to government documents, explains Pat Sellinger, the university’s FOIA coordinator. The act establishes the right to inspect and receive copies of records of state and local government bodies, including the state’s public universities.
The FOIA broadly defines a public record as a "writing prepared, owned, used, in the possession of, or retained by a public body in the performance of an official function, from the time it is created."
The law defines a "writing" to include handwriting, photographs, maps, tapes “or other means of recording or retaining meaningful content."
Email messages are considered public records under the FOIA if they deal with university business or are maintained by the university related to university business. The law specifically excludes computer software from the definition of public record.
Sellinger, who works closely with attorneys in the Office of the General Counsel to make sure the university complies with all aspect of the FOIA, adds that the university is not required to make a compilation, summary or report of information, or to create a new public record in order to respond to a request.
An analysis of requests submitted during 2009 shows that personnel records, financial records, contracts and university correspondence — including email — are the top four types of documents requested through the FOIA. Units receiving the most requests during 2009 were Athletics, Procurement, the Department of Public Safety and Human Resources.
For additional information or to schedule a briefing on understanding the Michigan FOIA, contact the FOIA office at 734-763-5082.