UMich sued for stonewalling on FOIA of Trump-related emails

The University of Michigan is being sued by The Mackinac Center for Public Policy after the school repeatedly failed to release internal correspondences related to Donald Trump’s election.

A Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request filed by Michigan Capitol Confidential reporter Derek Draplin on November 16 instantly faced roadblocks when the university’s FOIA specialist, Shannon Molen, claimed that the “large number of requests currently being processed” had forced her to employ a provision that grants the university an additional “10 business days beyond the initial due date,” compared to the general five-day limit.

Draplin, who had requested “any emails from President Mark Schlissel which contain the word ‘Trump’ from July 1, 2016 to November 16, 2016,” then received a note on the last day of the extension from the university’s chief freedom of information officer, Patricia Sellinger, who informed him that he would need to pay a “good-faith deposit” in order for his request to be processed.

[RELATED: Anti-Trump UMich protesters use 'privileged folx' as shields]

The check was sent December 15 and deposited December 20, just four days before the school would close for Christmas break, after which it confirmed that it would provide the records in 14 days, though nothing was ever sent.

On January 27, the university again said the documents would be available in 7 to 10 days, but again failed to send any such materials, according to a press release on the matter.

Finally, the school informed Draplin on February 9 that only four emails matched his request, asking him for the remainder of the processing fees as a condition of their release, and a check was cashed on February 22 to complete the request.

Michigan Capitol Confidential, which is overseen by the Mackinac Center, claims it still had yet to receive a single document as of March 1, more than 100 days after Draplin filed his initial request.

Correspondingly, the Mackinac Center filed suit against the university Thursday over its “egregious” delay in providing the records, a move that Mackinac Center Legal Foundation Director Patrick Wright explained “should not be necessary.”

[RELATED: Prof prevails in FOIA fight for race-based admissions data]

“This was a simple request. Any of us could find the relevant documents in 30 seconds with a simple word search in our sent email folder,” he pointed out in a press release. “There is no reason it should take over 100 days for the University of Michigan to follow the law.”

John Mozena, the Mackinac Center’s vice president for marketing and communications and the publisher of Michigan Capitol Confidential, explained that his “team was interested in learning more about the decision-making process that led to the actions taken by this public university and its employee,” namely President Schlissel, who repeatedly expressed his pubic distaste for Trump in the wake of the election.

“In his professional role as head of a public university, President Schlissel took a very public stance against President-Elect Trump and the people who elected him,” Mozena noted, calling the university’s delay in the matter “so egregious” that his organization was “forced to turn the matter over to the courts so they could uphold basic principles of government transparency.”

Notably, the Mackinac Center claims that it finally received four emails sent by Schlissel on March 2, the very day that it filed the lawsuit, though the organization says it will still pursue the case “because it took the university 106 days to provide the records.”

[RELATED: GVSU settles with conservatives, gives up ‘speech zones’]

“The documents are important, but at this point, it’s really about the delay,” Wright explained. “People and the press have a right to information no matter how embarrassing or inconvenient it might be to the public officials involved.”

For its part, UMich disputes the Mackinac Center’s timeline, issuing a statement to The Michigan Daily claiming that it provided the documents several days earlier, on Feb. 27.

“The University has not been served with the lawsuit, but I can assure you that UM fully complies with our state's Freedom of Information Act,” asserted university spokesperson Rick Fitzgerald. “In this case, the University sent the Mackinac Center the materials the reporter requested on Feb. 27, just a few days after receiving payment.”

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @AGockowski