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

MICHIGAN — The state Supreme Court on Wednesday sent a studentnewspaper’s lawsuit seeking police reports back to a lower court forfurther review.

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

“They essentially sent us back to square one,” said MartySturgeon, general manager of The State News. “Ultimately thepeople who lose are the students, parents and MSU community; anybody that has aright to know what occurred when there’s a crime on campus.”

When MSU officials denied the News’ request, they said theywere keeping the record private because releasing it would inhibit the ongoinginvestigation and raise student privacy concerns. The State News filed alawsuit to obtain the police reports, and during that time information aboutpolice suspects became public.

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

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

The high court did not directly rule on whether MSU police were justifiedin denying the News’ entire request or on how much information inthe police report they must release. Instead, it deferred that decision backto the lower court.

“The judges now have an obligation to go back and read the policereport to see how much can be released,” said Hershel Fink, attorneyfor The State News. “Last time, the trial judge didn’t evenallow a narrative of events, without any personal information, to beread.”

Although the Supreme Court said events that transpire after a FOIA decisionis issued do not have an effect on the request’s consideration byofficials, the court did leave open the door for the News to refile itsFOIA request, which would force campus police to take more recent developmentsinto account.

Terry Denbow*, vice president of university relations, told the Newsin a July 16 report that the university was pleased with the court’sdecision.

“We are pleased the court agreed with us that developments occurringafter 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 reportsabout, 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 eversee any police reports from the university,” Sturgeon said. “TheSupreme Court has said they can’t withhold the entire report, but how muchthey can withhold is still up in the air.”

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

“Given the nature of student newspapers, we would often just let ourFOIA 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