President at Northern Michigan U. waives $300 fee it charged student newspaper for public documents

MICHIGAN — When The North Wind staff requested documents showing tension between the student newspaper staff and Northern Michigan University administers, the institution responded with a $613 pricetag. Although editors at the paper agreed to narrow the focus of their request, reducing the cost to $300, the newspaper’s advisory board decided Friday that editors could not use the newspaper’s budget to cover the expense.

But on Monday, after the Society of Professional Journalists, a local student-run media website and local television journalists raised enough to pay the bill, NMU President Fritz Erickson announced all fees for the public records request would be waived, according to the newspaper.

“For the good of the University and the relationship with The North Wind, it is important that we continue to demonstrate our commitment to an open and transparent administration and work to establish positive, cooperative working relationships,” university spokesman Derek Hall said in a news release. It’s important the university minimizes any misunderstandings about The North Wind’s relationship with the administration, he said.

Emma Finkbeiner, The North Wind’s editor-in-chief, said she made the public records request in December following “feelings of intimidation” last semester from NMU administrators to avoid articles that were critical of the institution.

“I think there’s a great misunderstanding of what our job is at The North Wind and pretty big lack of education about what we are,” Finkbeiner said. “We’re not a public relations forum for the university. We are an open forum, we’re an independent student newspaper, and we cover campus issues.”

Finkbeiner said she requested emails from six administrators and the university’s attorney between Sept. 30 and Dec. 7 that contain her name, newspaper adviser Cheryl Reed’s name and the name of the paper. The request was later narrowed to remove the attorney’s emails in an attempt to bring down the cost.

Finkbeiner said the university had never charged her for a records request before and she wasn’t expecting to be charged for this request.

The state’s public records law allows public agencies to charge the hourly wage of its lowest-paid employee to retrieve public documents. The public body may also charge a deposit before retrieving the documents.

A bill the newspaper received from Gavin Leach, the university’s vice president for finance and administration, estimated the records request would take 13 hours of administrative and clerical staff time and an hour and a half for programming.

“I didn’t foresee that retrieving emails, especially with the specifications that we’ve provided, would cost so much or take so much time,” Finkbeiner said. “I’m totally surprised and shocked by that amount for sure.”

Hall said the bill was high because of the resources and hours the request would require to fulfill.

Last week, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder signed an amendment to the state’s public records law, according to the Detroit Free Press. Under the law, which goes into effect on July 1, government agencies won’t be able to charge more than 10 cents per page for copies of public records and agencies could be penalized for delayed responses.

“As a state university we are very conscious of budget dollars,” Hall said in the release. “Our goal is to work with all media outlets, especially The North Wind. We will always provide information that is covered by FOIA.”

Contact SPLC staff writer Mariana Viera by email or at (202) 478-1926.