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Opinion: Cost of public information is too high

Unless you are reading this article in prison, you have the right to request documents from government agencies, including Central Michigan University.

The problem is you probably can't afford them.

The Freedom of Information Act was established to allow citizens to ask government agencies for public documents such as police reports or emails between officials. Some information is not subject to FOIA, such as social security numbers.

In Michigan, public institutions are allowed to charge fees related to compiling, reviewing and examining documents. However, this is not the case for several other states.

The Central Michigan University chapter of Society of Professional Journalists sent more than 40 freedom of information requests to 13 of Michigan’s largest public universities. We asked for board of trustees expenses, university president's discretionary spending and police incident reports regarding sexual assault during the 2014-2015 year.

The purpose of our audit was to examine how much each university charged to fulfill FOIA requests. We came up with the idea after several of us noticed in our reporting careers the wide-ranging costs of FOIA requests.

In our audit, we found that there was a wide discrepancy on how much higher education institutions charged for records requests.

For example, Michigan Technological University and Eastern Michigan University granted all of our requests for free. Other universities such as the University of Michigan and Michigan State University charged more than $5,000 to fulfill all three requests.

CMU asked for $194.02 to search for copies of President George Ross' discretionary spending. However, the costs associated with reviewing and duplicating the documents were listed as "to be determined."

CMU did grant one of our requests for free, but the idea of any public information having a price tag is disturbing. High costs for open records also makes it easier for officials to hide troubling or embarrassing information.

While access to information is a problem across the country, Michigan is particularly awful in terms of government transparency.

Michigan is one out of three states where both the governor and legislature are both exempt from open records requests.

These exemptions have serious consequences. For example, it's still unclear when Governor Rick Snyder knew about the Flint Water Crisis because he exempted from FOIA requests. The emails that have been released from Snyder's office were released only after months of criticism.

A CMU student that helps contribute to Ross's $450,000 base salary should be able to have a copy of all his expenses and receipts without having to pay hundreds of dollars. I challenge Ross to follow EMU's lead and release all of his expenses and reimbursement records. Then he should make it available for any CMU student to view.

Not only would it be a good gesture on his part, it would show CMU truly does value transparency and a positive example for other universities to follow.

The full result of FOIA audit is posted on