Watchdogs and the oversight they provide are pillars of a successful society. But those dogs got a swift kick in the hindquarters last week when the Michigan Supreme Court delivered two pivotal decisions regarding the 1976 Freedom of Information Act, effectively broadening the definition of what may be withheld from those seeking information. This blow further leaches power from the already-diminished act, which is well-intended in its conception but, pragmatically, impotent.
Last Wednesday, the state's Supreme Court justices came to dual unanimous conclusions in two separate cases involving the 1976 act. The first found that personal contact information for staff members at the University was off-limits to an educators' union.
In a separate decision involving information about a police investigation on Michigan State University's campus, the court decided that FOIA did not entitled the staff of The State News to information regarding the case, even after part of the record considered confidential had been made public.
The limitations of FOIA, aimed at protecting personal privacy, are a good idea in theory. The problem is that in reality, these limitations have expanded so vastly that the act now struggles to provide the transparency it was created to facilitate.
And overbearing definitions of privacy aren't the only problems - getting information isn't cheap either. While prices vary, some more extensive queries can cost thousands of dollars. There's also a tremendous moral gray area created by the fact that the party providing the information gets to decide how much that process costs. That price ambiguity also creates a convenient way to barricade sensitive material by making it cost-prohibitive.
The rules regulating what can be obtained under FOIA are equally frustrating. Applicants need to know for what nugget of knowledge they are searching to a great degree of specificity. But often, it's hard to know what to look for without collecting background data that is similarly off-limits, creating an impossible catch-22.
While the state court's recent decisions are frustrating set-backs, the teachers' union and The State News have the right idea. It's only through continuing to bring these cases to court and, in doing so, raising the profile of FOIA's flaws that any change can take place.