We once had a President who believed anything he did was legal, just because he was President, and that he had the right to keep anything from the public he wanted to.
His name was Richard Nixon, he attempted to lead a vast criminal cover-up, and in the end, that didn’t work out too well. He was driven from office in disgrace, largely because even top members of his own party believed America was meant to be a democracy.
“Our great republic is a government of laws, not men,” President Gerald Ford added the day he succeeded Nixon. In the aftermath of Watergate, the federal government, Michigan, and every one of the states passed Freedom of Information Act laws, known as FOIA, for short.
These laws are based on the theory that our government essentially belongs to the people, and that we should have the right to see any piece of paper any government, federal, state or local generates, unless there’s a really good reason for an exception.
Virtually everyone would agree that the nuclear launch codes ought to be an exception, as well as confidential personnel records. Otherwise, we have a right to know.
Politicians generally are in favor of Freedom of Information -- until they actually get the job they want, and then they start backpedaling. They love open records, until it comes to examining what they are doing, though they never say that. Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette is an exception, however. He has made it clear that he doesn’t care about the public’s right to know, saying in a recent opinion, “It’s perfectly okay to take a long time to fill a FOIA request, so long as you’re making some sort of effort to do it.”
What he is essentially doing is telling any government that has anything to hide that it is fine to drag your feet when a reporter wants information. Schuette may be attorney general, but what he said is counter to the spirit and letter of Michigan’s FOIA law.
It says that if you make a request for information, the public body involved has up to five business days to respond. They can ask for a 10-day extension, but then they have to produce the records. But the attorney general seems to be giving officials a green light to stonewall.
Governments for years have been trying to find ways to avoid complying with FOIA. Michigan Radio’s Sarah Cwiek reported that the Detroit Police Department told Vice magazine it would take more than 10 years and cost $77,532 to retrieve some records about police shootings.
I have journalism students every year ask various governments for the same piece of basic information. Some governments happily give them lots of material; others try to charge the students outrageous fees. What’s fascinating is that on this issue, conservatives like State Representative Gary Glenn of Midland are on the same side as liberals like the ACLU.
Neither trust government, and with good reason. Last year, Glenn sponsored some much-needed bills to open the governor and legislature’s records to FOIA and public scrutiny.
Predictably, State Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof killed them. Today, the leading Republican candidate for governor doesn’t seem the least interested in the public’s ability to find out what government is doing.
I think that’s worth thinking about.
Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.