University of Michigan sued after 106 day delay for four emails

MICHIGAN—The Mackinac Public Policy Center, a Michigan policy nonprofit, is suing the University of Michigan over a delay in receiving emails from university president Mark Schlissel containing the word “Trump.” It took 106 days for U-M to release four emails to Derek Draplin, a reporter for the Center’s Capital Confidential publication. Draplin sent the request for the president’s emails on Nov. 16.

Comments Schlissel made after Donald Trump’s election at a candlelight vigil on Nov. 9 raised eyebrows among U-M’s conservative community. A petition sent in protest of the remarks garnered 383 signatures from Wolverines who felt excluded by Schlissel’s remarks.

“Ninety percent of you rejected the kind of hate and the fractiousness and the longing for some kind of idealized version of a non-existent yesterday that was expressed during the campaign,” Schlissel reportedly said in The Michigan Daily’s rundown of the event.

According to the emails released by U-M, 90 percent of students voted for Hillary Clinton.

“Our CapCon team was interested in learning more about the decision-making process that led to the actions taken by this public university and its employee, and filed the FOIA request accordingly,” Mackinac Center vice president for marketing John C. Mozena said in the lawsuit announcement.

Though the Mackinac Center had paid the fees U-M requested for the documents, the university didn’t release them at the time they said they would, only sending them after the Center announced it would sue.

“They said it was going to take two and three quarters hours of work, they provided us with four emails. That should not take 106 days to complete. And secondly we think there is some possibility that there’s some more emails that are responsive that they are claiming exemptions apply to that might not apply,” Patrick Wright, director of the Mackinac Center Legal Foundation, told the SPLC.

The emails sent to the Mackinac Center after the lawsuit was announced paint a relatively innocuous picture of Schlissel’s handling of the election. While expressing the same concern and disbelief commonplace in academic communities on the days following Trump’s historic upset, the university president expressed concern for the welfare of people going against the campus’ grain.

“We also have to be wary of regarding a potential backlash focused on the minority of students on our campus who are Trump supporters and deserve the same civil treatment we urge for all other minority groups on campus,” Schlissel wrote to U-M vice president Sally Churchill in one Nov. 9 correspondence.

U-M maintains it followed Michigan’s open records laws by sending the emails to Draplin after Mackinac’s fee payment had been received on Feb. 27.

“U-M fully complies with our state’s Freedom of Information Act. The university sent the Mackinac Center the materials the reporter requested on Feb. 27, just a few days after receiving payment,” university spokesman Rick Fitzgerald said in an email to the SPLC. Fitzgerald confirmed the university had been served the papers, but did not have a timeline for the litigation.

Wright said the Mackinac Center will continue with the lawsuit even after the emails were released because delays can’t become normal practice.

“We send out a couple thousand FOIAs a year and we cannot live in a world where public bodies take over 100 days to respond to them,” Wright said.

SPLC staff writer James Hoyt can be reached by email or (202) 478-1926.

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