July 17th, 2008
Michigan Supreme Court rulings damage transparency
By David Cuillier
Two state Supreme Court rulings in Michigan on Wednesday hurt access to police records and information about public employees (see story). In one case, the court determined that exempt personal information now includes home addresses and telephone numbers of public employees. The court feared that the information could aid marketers and disgruntled ex-employees and ex-spouses in finding people, as if they can’t already find that information easily through other means.
In the other case, Michigan State University’s campus paper, The State News, submitted a request for a police incident report about an assault in a dorm room. The request was denied because of privacy grounds and because it was still under investigation. Later the paper got the information from elsewhere. The court ruled that a determination for whether a record is public or not needs to be made based on the status of the situation at the time. Therefore, what this ruling means to journalists is if there is a major incident and reporters request police reports and are denied because it is “still under investigation,” then they should submit a new public records request every hour (as the investigation continues and eventually gets resolved), and ultimately one of the requests will be granted as conditions change. This is an example of how access laws (and government officials’ manipulation of them to stall or prevent access) can actually get in the way of common sense, creating more barriers for citizens and journalists.