Michigan Supreme Court Rules in Favor of University in FOIA Case

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The Michigan Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that it was OK for Eastern Michigan University officials to withhold some internal communications related to the construction of a president’s home.

The majority of the court ruled there are certain cases where not disclosing information better serves the public’s interest.

At issue is a 2003 letter written by Patrick Doyle, the school’s finance vice president, to Jan Brandon, a member of the board of regents. The letter was in response to a question Brandon had about then-President Samuel Kirkpatrick’s role in the construction of a new presidential residence at Eastern.

The project’s costs had been criticized. A state audit found that tuition and other funding was improperly used to help build the house, which it said ultimately cost about $6 million.

The Ann Arbor News filed a Freedom of Information Act request seeking a copy of Doyle’s letter, but the university denied it, citing an exemption for frank communications between public officials and employees.

A divided appeals court panel ruled the letter did not have to be released, but the newspaper appealed to the high court.

A majority of the Supreme Court agreed with the appeals court decision. But the court said the matter should be returned to circuit court to separate material in the letter that is exempt from FOIA from the information that is not, and make the nonexempt portion available to the newspaper.

The newspaper had argued the appeals court incorrectly balanced the parties’ competing interests, without putting emphasis on the side of disclosure, as required by the Freedom of Information Act. The high court disagreed, noting that Eastern had released a report on the issue to the newspaper.

Chief Justice Clifford Taylor joined Justices Robert Young, Maura Corrigan and Stephen Markman in the majority opinion.

Justices Marilyn Kelly and Elizabeth Weaver concurred in part and dissented in part with the majority opinion. Justice Michael Cavanagh dissented.

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