On an important issue of governmental transparency, the Michigan Supreme Court has decided to punt.
Instead of resolving a dispute over whether a citizen-journalist was entitled to receive copies of teachers’ emails in Howell Public Schools, the high court Wednesday denied leave to appeal on the case in a 4-3 ruling – meaning it is refusing to hear it.
That let stands an earlier Court of Appeals ruling that the emails were “personal” and technically not a public record subject to the Michigan Freedom of Information Act.
The appellate court reached this conclusion earlier this year although the Mackinac Center Legal Foundation and the Michigan Press Association argued the records clearly were public records. Moreover, the journalist who sought the emails from teachers/union officials contends he was trying to show that teachers were wrongfully using public resources, their district-owned computers, to conduct union business.
“This is awful,” Patrick Wright, foundation director, said of the high court’s ruling. “Illegal activity by public officials using public resources is precisely what the Freedom of Information Act was meant to expose. The ruling will severely hinder reporters and citizen activists in their role as government watchdogs.”
Granted, I’m no legal scholar, but it does seem like an odd ruling. Emails by public employees on public time on public equipment seems cut-and-dried FOIA-able.
It may be the high court felt that releasing the emails may compromise student confidentiality. Or perhaps it felt that releasing the emails would open a Pandora's Box of privacy concerns for teachers. But the Supreme Court did not explain its ruling, only saying it was not persuaded that it should examine the issue.
Plaintiffs are deciding whether to ask the high court to reconsider.