EDITORIAL: Support your right to know
Michigan's Freedom of Information Act, also known as “FOIA,” is a state law that gets mentioned often in the Central Michigan Life newsroom. It and the Open Meetings Act are both known together as Michigan's "Sunshine Laws."
This week, March 10-16, is "Sunshine Week." We dedicate this time to highlighting the importance of open government and freedom of information. It’s a national initiative that was launched in 2005 by the American Society of News Editors. Freedom of information is important to us at CM Life – and it should be to you, too. We believe the public deserves to know how elected officials and government entities are serving us. It is important for our readers to understand the obstacles we sometimes face when trying to get these stories to you.
A FOIA request is made when CM Life seeks public information from a government body (police, university, city commission, etc.). We often use this kind of request when asking for public documents, police reports, dashcam videos and other content created by government bodies as they do work on behalf of taxpayers. All content created by government-funded agencies are public records, though the state law also includes many exemptions to FOIA.
When we request information about Central Michigan University through FOIA, the request goes to the Office of General Counsel. These, sometimes costly, requests are how CM Life has uncovered information that revealed the former dean of libraries was fired after multiple sexual harassment complaints, the actions of fraternity members that led to the group's suspension, the investigation of an athletic training coach after he was accused of stealing prescription drugs, as well as other stories.
Sunshine Laws help CM Life do its job. These requested documents are what make our student journalism come to life, especially when sources refuse to answer questions or even return phone calls or emails. Our Sunshine Laws help you, the reader, know what is happening on your campus and in your community.
Please recognize that journalists need to be able to obtain this information to do what we do best — tell the truth. There are many challenges we face. Often our requests are denied. Once that happens the only alternative we have is to appeal that decision to the president of the university. Sometimes our requests are partially granted. That usually means we will receive documents, but many of them will be heavily redacted.
Quite often cost is an issue. Recently, after the university made the unprecedented move to kick Phi Sigma Phi out of the Greek community, CM Life requested a copy of the university's investigation. These documents, in all, cost more than $1,000. On average this year, if we have to pay for documents, we are paying more than $100 per request.
Those requests add up. According to Michigan's weak FOIA law, the university could legally charge us even more. In February, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed an executive directive that should make government entities respond to requests faster and reduce the cost associated with fulfilling a request. That's a good start, but Whitmer shouldn't stop there. We believe that recognized, affiliated student media should not be charged for FOIA requests at all.
Gov. Whitmer we ask you to stand with CM Life and our fellow student media – The Michigan Daily, The State News, Western Herald, Eastern Echo, Ferris State Torch, Grand Valley Lanthorn, The Compass, The Oakland Post and The Valley Vanguard. Support student media by making state universities and community colleges waive all fees for student journalists.
CMU could step up and do that today, right now, for CM Life, NewsCentral 34, Grand Central Magazine, the Society of Professional Journalists and our WMHW radio stations. For student journalists paying tuition and working to serve their fellow Chippewas, freedom of information should be free.
Student Press Law Center, the Freedom Forum Institute and the Newseum have named 2019 "Year of the Student Journalist." This year-long initiative aims to bring attention and awareness to student journalists and the struggles they face: censorship, lack of funding and lack of access to information.
You can help us.
Take a moment to learn about the important work that collegiate newspapers are doing around the country.
Read us. Everyday we publish content on cm-life.com and twice a week in print on newsstands around campus and the community. Pick up a copy and give it a read. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, iTunes, Spotify, Soundcloud, Stitcher and Snapchat. Share our content on social media. Invite your friends and family to check out our work.
We work to inform you — students, parents, alumni, faculty, staff and community members. We need your support through readership and advertising in order to keep you informed.
No matter what obstacles we face as student journalists here at CM Life, we need you on our side. We will never stop seeking the truth. No matter what it costs.