Michigan State University student newspaper files lawsuit to gain access to police reports

The student newspaper atMichigan State University filed a lawsuit May 19 to gain access to a campuspolice incident report of an alleged assault on campus.

“Theyenjoy all the same powers and privileges that a local police department would,so I think they need to be held to the same standards,” said NickMrozowski, editor in chief of The State News. “We are just asking them tofollow our state’s laws.”

The university previouslydenied two state Freedom of Information Act requests for the incident reportmade by the student paper, said university spokesman TerryDenbow.

“Our decisions to deny the reporter’s FOIArequest and appeal were based on our belief that we should use available FOIAexceptions to protect the integrity of the criminal process and the safety andprivacy of individuals caught up in that process,” said a May 9 statementissued by the university.

Prosecuting attorney Stuart Dunnings sent aletter to campus police Chief Jim Dunlap on May 4 saying the investigation intothe alleged assault would be compromised if the police reports were released.Dunnings’ letter was attached to the university’sstatement.

Herschel Fink, a Detroit attorney representing the studentnewspaper, said the university’s reasons for not handing over the incidentreport are “bogus” and “not recognized by thelaw.”

Mrozowski said the alleged assault has generated a lot ofcontroversy on campus and student journalists want the incident report to moreclearly report the facts of the case.

In late February, one studentand two nonstudents allegedly used a handgun to threaten three victims in acampus dormitory, according to an article in The State News. They also pouredgasoline on a victim and threatened to light it, according to thearticle.

“The law says these are public records,” Finksaid. “Like any good journalist, the newspaper wants to see what theofficial records say. They want to know what the facts are, what happened inthis incident. And they want to write about it. It’s really as simple asthat.”

Mrozowski said he hopes ultimately to be able to havefull access to campus police incident reports.

“If wecan’t find out what the police department has been up to, we aren’tlooking out for our readers,” he said.

SPLC View: The policeincident reports at issue in this case are clearly public records. The only realquestion is whether or not there exists a clear exemption under Michigan’s openrecords law that gives MSU’s campus police the authority to withhold therecords. One excuse that the police have relied on thus far is that release ofthe records would impede an ongoing criminal investigation. Unfortunately, thisexcuse, which almost every state open records law has in some form — and whichmost would agree has its place — is also one of the most abused. In this case,three men were arrested and charged over three months ago. Yet, the police andprosecuting attorney continue to point to the “ongoing investigation” exemptionas the basis for denying the student paper’s request, though they have failed toprovide any factual basis for their reasoning. It may be that police have somelegitimate concerns, but The State News does all of Michigan’s news media afavor by not simply taking their word for it and demanding that they providesome evidence of their claim.