State high court sends split ruling in Eastern Michigan access case

MICHIGAN — The Michigan Supreme Court ruled last week that a letter pertaining to the construction of a university president’s house can in part remain private.

The Ann Arbor News in Ann Arbor, Mich., filed the lawsuit against Eastern Michigan University after school officials refused to release a 2003 letter from a university vice president to one of the members of the school’s Board of Regents. The newspaper had filed a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain the letter, as well as other records, as part of an investigation into the construction cost of the EMU president’s university-owned house.

EMU officials had said that the construction project cost the school $3.5 million, but a state auditor later found the actual cost to be closer to $6 million, according to an article in The Ann Arbor News.

In its July 19 decision, the state Supreme Court ruled that EMU must release only parts of the letter deemed purely “factual” by a lower court judge. In March 2004, a circuit court judge had ruled that the letter contained more opinion than fact and that protecting the “frank communication” between officials “clearly outweighed the public interest in disclosure.”

The state court of appeals in February 2005 affirmed the lower court’s decision.

Ed Petykiewicz, editor of The Ann Arbor News, said that the university’s vice president for business and finance, Patrick Doyle, wrote the sought-after letter upon his resignation.

“We argued that this letter was submitted as this man was resigning, so what chilling effect could this have on communications in the future since he wasn’t going to be there in the future?” he said.

EMU President Samuel Kirkpatrick, who was in office during the house’s construction, also has since resigned.

Petykiewicz said that although the school now will have to release parts of the letter, the newspaper will not be allowed to have its attorney review the letter with the judge to argue what parts should be made public.

“On one level, we’re glad the court sent it back and instructed the local judge to separate the opinion and fact, but we believe strongly that in this case the document in its entirety should have been released because this issue was so important on campus and in the community,” he said.

Pam Young, director of university communications at EMU, said that the university is “pleased with the decision,” but she declined to comment further on the case.

Michigan, news, University of Michigan