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Court rules University of Michigan must turn over full email communications with governor's office

University of Michigan Central Campus sign
Anna Schlutt
Michigan Radio

The University of Michigan must provide a conservative think tank with unredacted communications between university experts and members of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s office, a state court ruled on Wednesday.

During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Whitmer said she relied on the “best science and data” to guide policy decisions. She also said she leaned on guidance from some University of Michigan experts.

The governor’s office is exempt from the Michigan Freedom of Information Act, so the Mackinac Center for Public Policy filed FOIA requests with U of M for emails between several university employees and the governor’s office. The center says it wants to know more about the science and “data used to support the state’s initial lockdown orders and reopening plan.”

U of M turned over those documents in October 2020, but the Mackinac Center said they were heavily redacted. U of M cited a “frank communications” exception in FOIA laws to justify redacting the emails, which spurred the Mackinac Center to go to court to get the unredacted documents.

Now, the Michigan Court of Claims has rejected the frank communications exception in this case, and ruled the university needs to turn over those emails in full, noting that “public release of information that may have influenced actions taken by government employees and officials during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic is a matter of potentially significant public interest.” The court allowed some exceptions for individuals’ private email addresses.

“It should not have taken a year and a half for the public to receive answers about the policies that shut down their businesses, forced them to stay at home, prohibited them from buying paint or gardening supplies and restricted their access to health care, among many other things,” Steve Delie, the director of transparency and open government at the Mackinac Center, said in a statement. “Increased transparency is more critical than ever before. This decision is a long-delayed victory for Michigan residents, but more can and should be done to shed light on the decisions being made by politicians and bureaucrats.”

U of M could appeal the decision. University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald said they are “pleased that the court agreed with our position that the personal email addresses of private citizens should be protected from disclosure.” He said U of M is “still assessing the rest of the opinion, as well as the possibility of appeal.”

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.