MSU student newspaper wins right to campus police records of 2006 assault

MICHIGAN — A judge ruled Michigan State University officialsmust turn over select police files to its student newspaper after a three-yearlegal battle that might not be over.

An Ingham County Circuit Court judge said this month MSU must release somereports concerning a 2006 incident to the State News, theuniversity’s student paper. The case began after campus police refused tohand over information in response to a Freedom of Information Act request aboutan in-dorm assault in February 2006.

The university has two weeks from the ruling — which was handeddown May 20 — to release the information.

But Marty Sturgeon, general manager of the State News, said thedocuments set to be released — essentially just the respondingofficer’s name, and the suspect’s name and mug shot — are onlya small portion of the actual request.

“We’re disappointed with the decision, even though we arereceiving some information,” Sturgeon said. “We don’t believewe’ve gotten everything we deserve to see.”

Under the recent ruling, the paper will not get a copy of what the staffreally wants, which is the initial incident report that includes a basicdescription of what happened in South Hubbard Hall the night of the reportedincident.

That incident allegedly involved an MSU student who, along with two othermen, assaulted a victim by pouring gasoline on the victim and threatening tolight it while wielding a handgun.

MSU officials denied the initial FOIA request to “protect theintegrity of the criminal process and the safety and privacy ofindividuals,” according to a statement from university spokesman TerryDenbow in 2006.

The case has been traveling through Michigan’s court system fornearly three years. Ingham County Circuit Court Judge Joyce Draganchuk initiallyruled in favor of the university in 2006. But the State News convincedthe Michigan Court of Appeals the following year that because information aboutthe incident had become public during that time, MSU should reconsider thepaper’s FOIA.

Information that became public after a FOIA request was submitted shouldnot affect whether the request is approved, according to a state Supreme Courtruling in July 2008. The high court then sent the case back to circuit court todecide how much information MSU officials must release.

Sturgeon said the State News might continue to fight for moredocuments beyond the few they are set to receive.

“Once we see what they’re actually releasing, we will thendetermine whether or not we’re OK with that or if we will continue tofight for more information,” she said.

Whitney Gronski, editor-in-chief of the State News, said they aremaking progress toward getting the records they want. But she noted theuniversity has not changed how they deal with access to these types ofrecords.

For example, reporters who cover the courts and cops beats are nottypically allowed to view records — instead, an officer readsselected information from the document aloud to them.

Gronski, who just took over the State News’ top editor role onMay 1, did not work for the paper when the initial incident and legal battlebegan. For her, the ordeal is more of an access issue.

“I just look at it as a case about getting the information to thepeople who need it,” she said. “It’s the principle of it;that’s why we’re fighting.”

Both Gronski and Sturgeon said getting public records from MSU couldcontinue to be a problem for the State News, even after thismonth’s ruling.

“I don’t expect them to do anything different untilthey’re told they have to change,” Gronski said.

The university did not return a call for comment.

For More Information

  • Newspaper considering appeal after judge rules police records should remain closed News Flash, 6/9/2006
  • Student newspaper files lawsuit to gain access to police report News Flash, 5/23/2006