State high court sends split ruling in Eastern Michigan access case

MICHIGAN — TheMichigan Supreme Courtruledlast week that a letter pertaining to the construction of a universitypresident’s house can in part remain private.

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

EMU officials had saidthat the construction project cost the school $3.5 million, but a state auditorlater found the actual cost to be closer to $6 million, according to anarticlein The Ann Arbor News.

In its July19 decision, the state Supreme Court ruled that EMU must release only parts ofthe letter deemed purely “factual” by a lower court judge. In March2004, a circuit court judge had ruled that the letter contained more opinionthan fact and that protecting the “frank communication” betweenofficials “clearly outweighed the public interest in disclosure.”

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

Ed Petykiewicz, editor ofThe Ann Arbor News, said that theuniversity’s vice president for business and finance, Patrick Doyle, wrotethe sought-after letter upon his resignation.

“We argued thatthis letter was submitted as this man was resigning, so what chilling effectcould this have on communications in the future since he wasn’t going tobe there in the future?” he said.

EMU President SamuelKirkpatrick, who was in office during the house’s construction, also hassince resigned.

Petykiewicz said that although the school now willhave to release parts of the letter, the newspaper will not be allowed to haveits attorney review the letter with the judge to argue what parts should be madepublic.

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

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