Mich. high court returns student paper's request for police records 'back to square one'

MICHIGAN -- The state Supreme Court on Wednesday sent a student newspaper's lawsuit seeking police reports back to a lower court for further review.

The case, filed by The State News, Michigan State University's student newspaper,began after campus police denied the paper's Michigan Freedom of Information Act request for a police report involving a high-profile assault in February 2006.

"They essentially sent us back to square one," said Marty Sturgeon, general manager of The State News. "Ultimately the people who lose are the students, parents and MSU community; anybody that has a right to know what occurred when there's a crime on campus."

When MSU officials denied the News' request, they said they were keeping the record private because releasing it would inhibit the ongoing investigation and raise student privacy concerns. The State News filed a lawsuit to obtain the police reports, and during that time information about police suspects became public.

Last year, The State News successfully argued to the state appeals court that since information about the assault had already become known to the public, MSU should reconsider its FOIA denial.

In Wednesday's unanimous decision, the Supreme Court reversed the appeals court, ruling that facts that come to light after an initial FOIA decision is issued do not affect the courts' evaluation of the initial decision.

The high court did not directly rule on whether MSU police were justified in denying the News' entire request or on how much information in the police report they must release. Instead, it deferred that decision back to the lower court.

"The judges now have an obligation to go back and read the police report to see how much can be released," said Hershel Fink, attorney for The State News. "Last time, the trial judge didn't even allow a narrative of events, without any personal information, to be read."

Although the Supreme Court said events that transpire after a FOIA decision is issued do not have an effect on the request's consideration by officials, the court did leave open the door for the News to refile its FOIA request, which would force campus police to take more recent developments into account.

Terry Denbow*, vice president of university relations, told the News in a July 16 report that the university was pleased with the court's decision.

"We are pleased the court agreed with us that developments occurring after MSU's FOIA response are irrelevant to a court's review,"

Denbow wrote in an e-mail.

In the assault case the newspaper was trying to obtain police reports about, three people have been apprehended and have been charged in court. Although the police reports now have limited practical value to the newspaper, Sturgeon said she will press on with the lawsuit.

"It we don't continue on the lawsuit, I doubt we'll ever see any police reports from the university," Sturgeon said. "The Supreme Court has said they can't withhold the entire report, but how much they can withhold is still up in the air."

Sturgeon said campus police had been notoriously slow in releasing police reports.

"Given the nature of student newspapers, we would often just let our FOIA requests drop. But this was the last straw," Sturgeon said.

CORRECTION, 7/18: An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of Vice President of University Relations Terry Denbow. The SPLC regrets the error. Return to story

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