The cost of public information

A journalist investigating sexual assaults at Michigan four-year public universities would have to pay more than $5,000 for a single year of campus police incident reports, the Central Michigan University chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists announced Wednesday in releasing the results of a statewide Freedom of Information Act audit.

The student SPJ chapter, as part of Sunshine Week activities, conducted a statewide freedom of information investigation to see whether higher education institutions would release information related to three similar requests and how much they would charge to obtain the information.

Michigan public universities were willing to release board of trustees expenses, presidential discretionary spending and sexual assault police incident reports. However, the price to fulfill those requests varied greatly and totaled more than $20,000.

The chapter sent FOIA requests to the University of Michigan, Michigan State University, Central Michigan University, Western Michigan University, Lake Superior State University, Wayne State University, Oakland University, Michigan Technological University, Ferris State University, Saginaw Valley State University, Northern Michigan University, Grand Valley State University, Eastern Michigan University, University of Michigan-Flint and University of Michigan-Dearborn.

To get the information from these schools would cost at least $20,614.89. Some universities said other costs would need to be determined after the searching process was completed. A few universities, however, provided the information at no cost.

Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act was passed in 1976 as part of a nationwide movement toward transparency following the Watergate scandal. Michigan’s law, which is supposed to make government more transparent and accessible to the people by allowing citizens to obtain documents related to governing decisions, exempts the legislature, the governor’s office, and the judiciary. The law also allows government agencies to charge hourly personnel fees for collecting, examining and redacting the information.

Michigan universities took full advantage of the law. While agreeing the information was public, they charged as high as $78 an hour to compile and review the information.

“This audit shows that practically most information is not really open to the public,” Arielle Hines, CMU SPJ president said. “Students do not have the means of acquiring factual information about their campuses.”

Hines is a senior journalism major.

Universities were most likely to grant board of trustees requests for free. However, to receive trustees expenses from all the universities would cost at least $4,759.54.

Overall, universities charged most for presidential discretionary spending. To receive the presidential or chancellor expenses from every university would cost at least $10,750.93. 

The universities collectively charged $5,104.51 to grant sexual assault police reports.

The single most expensive response in the audit was from the University of Michigan for the president’s discretionary spending. UM estimated the request would cost $2,774.32. The university estimated it would take 46.5 hours to search, 18 hours and 4.5 hours to duplicate the documents.

Overall, Michigan State University charged the most money to fulfill all three FOIA requests. MSU estimated all three requests would cost $5,983.17. MSU asked for $1,217.60 for board of trustee expenses, $2,435.20 for president’s expenses and $2,330.37 for police reports for sexual assaults.

However, MSU listed the cost for reviewing the records as “to be determined” for the board of trustee expenses and president’s expenses.

Michigan Tech and Eastern Michigan University granted all three requests for free. Lake Superior State University granted presidential  and board of trustees expenses for free. The university directed SPJ to send a request to the Sault St. Marie Police Department for sexual assault incident reports. The city handles the requests for all agencies and billed us $50.02 to receive the reports.

Oakland University also granted all three requests five weeks after the initial request.

Most of the cost to comply freedom of information requests stems from the cost to search and review the documents. For example, Michigan State University estimated it would take 40 hours to search for board of trustees expenses, while other universities had reports prepared.

The hourly rate for people to search and review records varied by universities as well. For example, Wayne State University receipt said the employee searching for documents would be paid $78.51 per hour.

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Most Interesting Responses

During SPJ’s investigation, a few responses stood out.

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Michigan State University estimated it would take someone up to 80 hours to review and search records for president’s spending. The cost for just searching was estimated to be $2,435.20, which wouldn’t include the cost to separate or duplicate records.

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Oakland University’s General Counsel responded within the 15 day period. However, its response did not give any specifics about the records, nor did it give any timeline on when the documents would be provided. However, the university sent the documents weeks later

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In Western Michigan University’s response to presidential spending, it said it would take seven hours to review the documents. However, the university estimated it would take 20 hours to duplicate the records, resulting in being charged $706.40.

Why is FOIA important?

Freedom of Information issues has been a conversation in the state for the last several months.

For example, disgraced politicians Todd Courser and Cindy Gamrat were exempt from FOIA because they were part of the legislature. 

The Center for Public Integrity ranked Michigan last for government transparency and 42nd for public access to information.

It’s still unclear when exactly Governor Rick Snyder knew about the Flint water crisis because he, too, is exempted under Michigan FOIA. The emails that have been released from Snyder’s office came only after months of criticism.

Last year, the former adviser of the Northern Michigan University’s student paper said she was ousted after the staff published a series of articles critical of the administration. Many of the stories involved FOIA requests.

Final conclusions

In Michigan’s FOIA, it states, “A search for a public record may be conducted or copies of public records may be furnished without charge or at a reduced charge if the public body determines that a waiver or reduction of the fee is in the public interest because searching for or furnishing copies of the public record can be considered as primarily benefiting the general public.”

When agencies charge fees for public records, it signals it doesn’t believe the information to be in public’s interests to know.

The universities that charged for the requests believed that board of trustee expenses, president’s discretionary spending and sexual assault police incident reports are not in the public interest.

“If how universities spend money during a time when the national student loan debt passed a trillion dollars, and dozens of schools have been investigated by the Department of Education for how they handle sexual assault is not in the public’s interest, what is?,” Hines said.

Editor’s note: This post was updated on March 18 and March 23 after the chapter received more FOIA responsesSeveral edits were made on March 30.