Michigan legislature sets bar for NMU

Michael Williams

Last Thursday, NMU President Fritz Erickson wrote a guest column defending privacy against transparency.

Michael Williams
Michael Williams

The next day, I sat in a room with four Michigan legislative leaders who argued for expanding transparency and Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) rights in the state government: Speaker of the House Kevin Cotter, Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich and House Minority Leader Tim Greimel. Two Republicans, two Democrats.

The power brokers didn’t discuss it long. They held no tension about transparency—in fact, it was the only topic they agreed on in their 90 minutes of eye-rolling, issuing talking points and slimy smiles to the audience. Bipartisanship: the ideal cohesion we fantasize in America.

Cotter even noted that Gov. Rick Snyder agreed: transparency must grow.

As good public officials would, they spoke with examples and with authority on the topic—that is, because they must be authorities on the topic of transparency. All public officials must, because public officials are the most subject to transparency laws.

That’s why it matters when politicians are caught hiding information—they are accountable first to the public they oversee. This applies to the White House, to the State Capitol and—this is important—to Cohodas Hall.

“Northern Michigan University, as a public university and a part of our community, will accept complaints and criticisms, founded and unfounded, as we protect the basic rights of privacy of our students, faculty and staff,” Erickson wrote.

First, all students in the FOIA waived their rights to privacy. So to include students in this opinion is facetious and misleading.

Second, the redacted emails are the administrators’, not faculty’s or the students’. Of the three groups, the administrators are the most subject to public scrutiny and have the least rights to privacy because (wait for it…) they are public officials.

In essence, Erickson’s editorial defended the offices of Cohodas, not the rest of campus.

“Not only should we respond to requests in a timely manner but we should be proactive in sharing as much as is legally and ethically permissible,” Erickson wrote.

That goes without question. The problem is, that’s not how this process has worked. In all but one case, the FOIA documents were delivered at the last possible moment permitted by law. In the other case, the documents were late. As we’ve waited and checked in, we’ve been told “this day.” When “this day” came, it was changed to “that day,” which isn’t very “timely.”

Furthermore, the administration redacted the senders and recipients of emails, as well as entire pages of those emails. Not even the Senate Torture Report went that far.

All they gave us was what we already knew, in the form of the North Wind’s correspondence with them. Erickson was right to frame transparency and privacy as a dichotomy, I’ll give him that.

But to hear the Speaker of the House say FOIA rights for journalists must expand, just one day after reading Erickson’s treatise on the “price of privacy” and within a week of him addressing ASNMU about the issue (almost quoting his forthcoming op-ed), was surreal. It demonstrated how out of touch this administration is from the already out-of-touch state government.

At the ASNMU meeting, Erickson dropped the term “conspiracy theories” at least twice. In his guest column, he wrote vaguely, so that if a student were not aware of the North Wind’s FOIA battle, he or she would be left confused.

This might be the first time I’ve ever encouraged this, but it feels imperative: if this administration wants to live up to its alleged commitment to transparency, then it should take a cue from the state government.

Talk to Lansing, Fritz.