Virginia-based immigration lawyer Hassan Ahmad is suing the University of Michigan to try and get access to papers donated to the school's archive by anti-immigration proponent John Tanton.
The case was dismissed from claims court in December, but arguments were heard in the Michigan Court of Appeals on Wednesday.
Half of Tanton’s papers are available for public consumption. But 11 boxes of his records have been sealed until 2035 at his request.
Ahmad originally tried to view the sealed papers under the Freedom of Information Act in late 2016. His request was denied by the university, and so were his subsequent appeals, so he took the case to court. Ahmad says he’s willing to go as high as the Michigan Supreme Court to argue his point — which is that Tanton’s documents were donated to a public institution, and therefore are public information.
“I think that a public institution, in the interest of transparency, should not be able to unilaterally shield [these records] just by a private agreement between the donor and the public insitutition,” Ahmad says. “We don’t want to go down that hill.”
Ahmad is arguing that all documents donated to public institutions should be immediately available. But he feels Tanton’s papers especially need to be unsealed so people can better understand the scope and content of Tanton's racist immigration views, which he says have influenced some of today's key government leaders.
“These documents in particular are of extraordinary import…. They will shine a light on the historical and procedural and ideological of the entire anti-immigrant movement.”
Terrence J. McDonald is the director of Michigan's Bentley Historical Library, where the papers are housed. He says keeping records sealed for a certain amount of time is an important and attractive option for some private donors.
“That's standard archival practice — every archive in America does it this way,” he says.
McDonald says there’s a significant legal question at hand here. A decision that says Tanton’s sealed papers are in fact public domain would rock the archival world.
“If it's said that a public university in the state of Michigan can't offer any period of closure to private donors of their own personal papers, there'll be huge damage to every archive in the state [at a public institution].”
University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald noted that people should remember half of the documents are already unsealed, and the rest will be made available in the future.
Following the arguments Wednesday, Ahmad told Michigan Radio he felt “cautiously optimistic” about his chances. He expects a decision to come from the Court of Appeals in three to five weeks.