EDITORIAL: Central Michigan University must stop requiring students to pay for FOIA requests


Sunshine Week is devoted to promoting Freedom of Information laws across the country. For us it's a time to emphasize the importance of open government in Michigan public education  — and to remind readers that state universities must follow the Freedom of Information and Open Meetings acts just like public school districts have to.

Our Freedom of Information Act regulates and sets requirements for the disclosure of public records by public bodies within the state of Michigan. State law defines a public record as "a writing prepared, owned, used, in the possession of, or retained by a public body in the performance of an official function, from the time it is created."

Sunshine Laws are not for journalists – these laws are for everyone in Michigan to take advantage of. These laws are why you are able to get the minutes from a city council meeting. It's why police must give the media copies of reports on campus assaults.

These laws give you, the public, the opportunity to address the board of trustees before every meeting. 

FOIA is a tool that reporters use to get documents to produce journalism. First we request specific information. If that request is granted, a cost estimate is provided – at CMU you must pay half in advance. When the information is collected you pay the balance and receive the information. 

These requests are always between $50 and $200 – and sometimes cost more. The state FOIA – one of the weakest in the nation according to the Center For Public Integrity – allows government agencies to charge citizens to fulfill a request. We don't necessarily disagree with that (although agencies also can choose to waive all fees) but we often disagree with how much they charge for providing public information. 

So today we are asking Central Michigan University to stop charging students to fill FOIA requests. 

Tuition funds roughly 75 percent of CMU's operations. We are already paying. Why should we be charged again to receive information about how our university is running? 

The state law says an institution can charge the person requesting records for the cost of the employee needed to gather information and for the paper it is printed on (electronic copies can also be requested). The truth is we are already paying that person's salary. Why should we have to pay it a second time?

You deserve to know what's being done with your money. You deserve to know what's going on behind closed doors – the difference between CMU announcing a dean is "retiring" versus the dean agreeing to leave with an almost $300,000 separation agreement. 

This request for free public information for students might seem self-serving. However, the No. 1 piece of feedback we get from student readers is that you want to see us do more investigative reporting. We would love to be able to do that, and this policy change would help us. We aren't "charged extra" when we speak with academic advisers, success coaches or counselors. Our tuition keeps this place running – why should students pay additional fees to work with CMU's legal department? 

The fact is most students can't afford to pay for a Freedom of Information request once it is granted. CMU has the ability to be fully transparent with students — in fact, we urge them to do so. The idea of charging for information we, for all intents and purposes, already paid for is absurd.

We are asking the Student Government Association to pass a bill encouraging the university to waive all FOIA fees for students . This SGA administration has has shown us it wants to put the needs of students first. Ask the university to support student rights – our right to know. 

We are asking CMU's board of trustees to also approve this policy change. 

You have much more to gain from this than lose.