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Posted on Tue, Apr 19, 2011 : 5:56 a.m.

U-M faculty member plans demonstration Tuesday against Mackinac Center's FOIA requests

By Kyle Feldscher

One University of Michigan faculty member wants to make sure university leaders take great care in responding to the controversial Freedom of Information Act requests filed by the Mackinac Center late last month.

Ian Robinson, a lecturer in the Department of Sociology, has collected about 1,600 signatures through a petition asking people to “protect academic freedom on campus.”

Robinson is planning a public demonstration at 3:30 p.m. Tuesday by gathering with supporters near The Cube next to the Michigan Union and walking to the Fleming Administration Building to hand the petition to university president Mary Sue Coleman.

“We thought we’d walk in and present it to the president or whoever is there,” he said. “It’s fairly low key, but I thought that way would be good to have some people who signed it and cared about the issue to be there visibly.”

The Mackinac Center filed FOIA requests to U-M, Michigan State University and Wayne State University labor studies departments asking for emails that mention collective bargaining disputes in Wisconsin. Among the terms explicitly mentioned by the center are “Walker,” “Wisconsin,” “Madison” and “Maddow” — as in MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow.

The Mackinac Center has received death threats and other communications since the filing of the requests.

Robinson said he’s asking U-M officials only to follow the example of University of Wisconsin officials when they responded to similar requests for emails of professor William Cronon. The university did not provide emails that were related to students, potential students, professorial organizations, personal communications, intellectual communications among scholars and communications related to personnel matters, all of which amounted to a denial of the request.

“It’s a very reasonable request,” Robinson said. “The fact that another major public university has done it, I think the odds are pretty good.”

Robinson said one of his main concerns was that the Mackinac Center has not stated what it plans to do with the information requested.

Ken Braun, director of MichiganTransparency.Org for the Mackinac Center, wrote in a blog post on April 4 that the center was following up on a story it had done a year before on the WSU Labor Studies Center.

“The unfolding of the Wisconsin turmoil and the pitched debate over the Michigan legislation provided us an opportunity to chase an old story with a FOIA,” Braun wrote. “Specifically, we were interested in determining whether the LSC and the labor faculty at Michigan’s other two large public universities had actively employed university resources to enter the political debates.”

Robinson said he’s found the request to be suspect and questioned the center's motivation.

“It’s hard to imagine that they had some other intent than to say, ‘Maybe we can get one or two things and get some information that can embarrass the university of individuals supporting workers in Wisconsin and Michigan,’” he said. “Or, they are trying to intimidate individuals by making them not participate any more by making them fearful of participating.”

Kyle Feldscher covers K-12 education for He can be reached at or you can follow him on Twitter.


Do not taunt Happy Fun Ball

Wed, Apr 20, 2011 : 3:31 p.m.

First off - hide. If you can not hide, change the subject. If you can not change the subject - confuse. If you can not confuse - protest loudly (unions are at this stage now). If you can not protest - accuse the opponent. At no time should you discuss the topic in question, for that clarifies the guilt/wrongdoing immediately.


Wed, Apr 20, 2011 : 4:41 p.m.

Did you get this out of the Rupert Murdoch/Republican playbook? It looks identical but I think you put the number 1 item in the Republican playbook as number 4. The accuse the opponent comes first. This is where the sleazy mackinac group is.

Edward R Murrow's Ghost

Wed, Apr 20, 2011 : 1:24 a.m.

"Oh how I miss Ed and his insight into the land of FOIA." Well, since you ask: 1) I'm not a lawyer (though I've been accused of being one), but this FOIA request seems perfectly within the law, as is protesting it. 2) That is not to say, however, that the request is appropriate. Joe McCarthy, too, was (usually) within the law, and he used the law to persecute and harass his enemies. This seems little different. But it is what I have come to expect from the RepubliKan Party. 3) The RepubliKan Party and the MaKKinaw Center had better hope this fishing expedition yields something because this is the last time the little witch hunt will work. After this, employees at the U and at other public institutions will simply move most of their e-mail to free g-mail accounts. Good Night and Good Luck


Tue, Apr 19, 2011 : 9:25 p.m.

Oh how I miss Ed and his insight into the land of FOIA.


Tue, Apr 19, 2011 : 8:22 p.m.

Well done Ian! Glad that so many people are not taking this attempt at political intimidation by the sleezy, secretive mackinac group lying down. If the mackinac group had any idea what they were looking for, they wouldn't have to use such ridiculously broad search criteria. They'd be able to include certain professors names for example. For you party of the wealthy supporters out there who are defending this fishing trip, what were you saying when the dark lord Dick Cheney put together his energy policy and wouldn't even provide the list of people who he recruited to write it? Hypocrisy is oozing from your every pore.


Tue, Apr 19, 2011 : 4:13 p.m.

I bet this guy was all for Andrew Shirvell's e-mails and computer use history at the AG's office being made public, or the back and forth banter among City Council members coming out in a FOIA request. At least, I don't recall him protesting to those things.

Brian M.

Tue, Apr 19, 2011 : 3:25 p.m.

Lol god forbid professors use costly resources like an email account to enter into the political fray. There's a lot of public interest at stake here! God I am so looking forward to the demographic shift in this country.


Tue, Apr 19, 2011 : 3:15 p.m.

Let's see, The University's own the computers and the network that the Prof's sent emails on and they get money from the state of Michigan therefore they are subject to FOIA. Ask Kwame Kilpatrick ex mayor f Detroit. If you want it private, do it on your own equipment and network( i.e. at home) Unless of course you are Sarah Palin, then it is alright to have your private emails exposed if they are hacked!

Brian M.

Tue, Apr 19, 2011 : 3:26 p.m.

Har har har let's drag Kwame into this. Corruption vs. at worst, discussion of a news item in another state.


Tue, Apr 19, 2011 : 2:47 p.m.

An interesting item about a law. You cannot turn it on or off depending on your opinions. At the U of M, I was told to be aware of email content and I suppose this Prof was too. Protection of academic freedom? Very funny. In re to the Mackinac Ctr's request, unless it was more specific than noted in the article I would imagine it would take some time to ferret out all emails with terms requested. Who is going to review all emails of the labor relations dept for the requested content? That could result in quite a bill that the center is required to pay per the law for an exercise that may produce nothing of value.


Tue, Apr 19, 2011 : 3:47 p.m.

Agree. "Robinson said one of his main concerns was that the Mackinac Center has not stated what it plans to do with the information requested. " Does he propose that all FOIA requests be required to state this?

Brian M.

Tue, Apr 19, 2011 : 3:26 p.m.

May produce nothing of value? What interests are being protected here?


Tue, Apr 19, 2011 : 2:38 p.m.

I think some folks are confusing communications regarding acedemia with communications regarding governance. The People have a right and obligation to know the latter, but not the former. If you want to know what instructors are teaching the students, take a class.


Tue, Apr 19, 2011 : 5:41 p.m.

Last I heard, we elect the Board of Regents and the University of Michigan is a constitutional corporation. The UM will remind you of that often enough. The FOIA that is being used here is the same one that lets everyone know what all UM employees earn each year and which gets all the faculty excited when they see the annual administrator pay raises. They never seemed to object to the FOIA then. Now, suddenly, there is no right to certain public information. If a professor wants to avoid public scrutiny, he can do so by working at a private university, by using privately-owned accounts and email, or by using his own paper and writing his own letters at his own home. No one is suppressing the professor's right to say whatever he or she wants. But, no professor at a public institution has any expectation that those sayings or writings are protected from public scrutiny when pronounced using the resources of that public institution and as part of the ordinary daily documentary of records and correspondence of or from that institution. That doesn't chill anything--unless of course it uncovers misuse and misappropriations of those resources--in which case I would think it would argue even more in favor of the public's right to know.


Tue, Apr 19, 2011 : 3:40 p.m.

Brian M., Im a People and I'm not outraged. If these folks spent so much time on personal situations that it was detrimental to their jobs, then their bosses would eventually find out. Besides, these days the People contribute less and less to the instructors salaries. Just because the institution is "public", doesn't mean the public has complete control.

Brian M.

Tue, Apr 19, 2011 : 3:27 p.m.

I'm sure The People will be OUTRAGED at their tax dollars going to an email account that may have been used for personal communication re: a news item. OUTRAGED.


Tue, Apr 19, 2011 : 2:14 p.m.

Good for Ian Robinson! The Makinac Center's action is little more than a McCarthyist fishing expedition aimed having a chilling affect on the expression of free speech in the University. Academic freedom/freedom of speech lies at the heart of the academy. The e-mails of faculty members are about ideas not fiscal matters and should not be subject to public scrutiny until the authors are ready to publish. I hope the entire faculty joins Mr. Robinson is his demonstration and closes the university down for a few hours, weeks, or months.

Moscow On The Huron

Tue, Apr 19, 2011 : 8:01 p.m.

"The e-mails of faculty members are about ideas not fiscal matters and should not be subject to public scrutiny until the authors are ready to publish. " No, the e-mails of faculty members, when sent from university e-mail accounts, using university computers, through university networks, while on university time) are public property.

John of Saline

Tue, Apr 19, 2011 : 1:27 p.m.

I wonder how worried about academic freedom they'd be if the FOIAed e-mails belonged to a professor of engineering involved in drilling for energy.

Craig Lounsbury

Tue, Apr 19, 2011 : 2:01 p.m.

The Mackinac Center clearly has a conservative agenda and acts accordingly. Move On.Org would just as clearly would have a different "target" if or when they were to FOIA. In either case the solution for targets is easy. Use your own equipment for personal stuff. Use your University equipment for University stuff and at all times have the intellectual honesty to accept truth wherever it lands


Tue, Apr 19, 2011 : 1:15 p.m.

I don't understand the contempt for keeping things confidential. The whole "if they have nothing to hide they should show" argument is a logical fallacy. That argument is a tactic used by bully organizations not when they want to see if there was something done wrong, as they claim, but in an attempt to get any tiny piece of information that they can then use to smear that organization in the media. Even when, as is usually the case, it had nothing to do with their original intent. Think about that Arizona "Birther (sic)" movement tried to get passed. Not even the contemptuous governor would go as far as to pass that. These right wing radicals will literally stop at nothing. On the surface it sounds fine, you have to be born in the country, that's what the law says. After all, if you have nothing to hide you'll just obey, right? But in lieu of that you can also send your circumcision certificate. And if you don't think the right wing radicals would run with the fact that a president may not have been genitally mutilated at his birth because that is what a book from the stone age says to do, you are living in a dream land. Hey Macabre, Dennis, Snapshot, and jjc, I hope you don't mind, but my Transparency Organization is going to come in and investigate your home. As beneficiaries of tax dollars, you are required to do as I say. If you don't have anything to hide, there shouldn't be any problem, right?

Edward R Murrow's Ghost

Wed, Apr 20, 2011 : 3:54 p.m.

"Being a beneficiary of the existence of government doesn't make me government." "We, the People" not withstanding. Good Night and Good Luck


Tue, Apr 19, 2011 : 8:44 p.m.

So many of you just don't get it. I know what my tax dollars buys and doesn't buy. It's not relevant. Being a beneficiary of the existence of government doesn't make me government. I am a taxpayer and I am supposed to benefit from the payment of taxes. But I don't benefit in as many ways you list or think. My water is from a well. I have to hire a private contractor to collect garbage. The county already told our sub won't get paved any more we have to have a special assesment. The rest of the poorly paved roads do a number on my suspension and tires. My taxes also go towards U-M and is a factor in the pay of many of the professors there. Still, that's not the point. The fact is if I buy a service it doesn't make me the service provider. Benefitting from tax paying is an expectation as is the transparency that I should be able to expect from those who make their livelihoods working in the public sector.


Tue, Apr 19, 2011 : 7:16 p.m.

Well, you do pay taxes, and you are the beneficiary of them. The roads you drove on today, that clean water you used at home, the clean air you breathed outside... you benefited from... SocIAlism Of course, not to mention, police, street lights, crosswalks, fire protection.. the list goes on... much deeper, I suspect, than you realize.


Tue, Apr 19, 2011 : 6:03 p.m.

"I hope you don't mind, but my Transparency Organization is going to come in and investigate your home. As beneficiaries of tax dollars, you are required to do as I say." That statement is totally irrelevant. It presents no counter-argument because it compares totally inapposite situations. I am not a public entity and I don't benefit from some mythical grant of tax dollars, I pay them. A lot, and on time. Further, there is a 4th Amendment that protects private entities by creating a reasonable expectation of privacy with regard to their PRIVATE effects and possessions. Each of the professors reatain that 4th amendment protection but we're not talking about private effects and possessions. I have no contempt for confidentiality and value it for all citizens in their private capacity. However, the debate over what secrets public entities and their public employees should be able to keep from the public was all had decades ago when FOIAs were first passed (the UM, MSU, WSU are all constitutional or statutorily created corporations with elected regents or trustees). What is and what isn't exempt from disclosure is epressed in the law. Nowhere does the law say that academics are exempted from disclosure. Also, nowhere does that law say that academics are denied their ability to say and write what they want. That's what academic freedom is all about. It's not a guarantee against adverse public opinion nor an insulation from the popular consequences of such speech. Academic freedom means that a person will not face employment consequences (firing, demotion, etc) for being courageous enough to stand out before the public and say what they want to say when doing so may not be popular. If, after the sunshine of public scrutiny, someone faces employment consequences or any attempt to chill academic opinion, then that's when the faculty should all rise up and shout loudly about academic freedom. Not before.

Stephen Landes

Tue, Apr 19, 2011 : 3:25 p.m.

In the last paragraph you have hit upon exactly what is wrong with left-wing, socialist, "progressive" government: we gave you some money so we can come into your home and tell you how to live. The sooner we get rid of "cradle to grave", do-gooder government the sooner we will be the FREE society promised by our Declaration of Independence and our Constitution.


Tue, Apr 19, 2011 : 3:04 p.m.

According to the logic of the argument, if you begin arguing that you shouldn't have to consent to any search, then you have something to hide.


Tue, Apr 19, 2011 : 1:35 p.m.

isn't the whole point that it is a public entity and not a private home?


Tue, Apr 19, 2011 : 12:44 p.m.

On a side note and to show what ends the teachers, professors and unions will go to to combat entities like the mackinaw center. My wife is a teacher in a local district and like most districts their unions recently held a vote to consider allowing the MEA to come in and potentially set up work stopages to protest the cuts in education that Gov Snyder has proposed. Their bargining units vote was just over 2 weeks ago. fast forward to this weekend and I asked her what the outcome of he vote was and she said that the union told everyone that "they were not going to release the results, even to the memebers." After I stopped laughing I asked her why and she advised that the union pres said that "the mackinaw center was hacking into their computers to get emails and info on them." I asked her what the union was doing either civilly or criminally to stop them from doing that and the answer was "nothing."I asked her if the union was going to send out an old fashion letter or some other communication to let the membership know how the vote turned out and she advised "Nope." So it is pretty obvious that the union is with holding info even from its own members under the guise that the mackinaw center is hacking their computers (not submitting FOIA requests). LOL


Tue, Apr 19, 2011 : 12:01 p.m.

Another "educator" who wants to censure and limit the knowledge of others. His resistance to comply with the request, while representing a well respected institution of "higher learning" is, in itself, an embaressment.


Tue, Apr 19, 2011 : 10:59 a.m.

A little correction there. I heard on NPR a "story praising the LA Times" The town council didn't have much praise for the LA times... LOL!!


Tue, Apr 19, 2011 : 10:57 a.m.

Incredible. These were probably all the same people who've come to chant "transparency" as a sacred mantra during the last election. Robinson says he finds the request "suspect" and he is concerned because the Center didn't convey what it intended to do with the emails. FOIA doesn't require that a request for information to a public entity meet any reasonableness tests the entity or the public employee may want to impose. Nor does it require that the request include an explanation as to why it is being made or for what purpose. The reasons are obvious--doing so would give government and public entities all the excuses they need to deny requests with impunity. Instead, the onus is on the public entity to justify withholding the information requested and the permitted justifications are few and enumerated (darn that's word the constitutionalists all use again!) in the statute. No where does it list "academic freedom" or other similar nebulous phrases of rhetoric and the entire act stands as testimony AGAINST any public body declaring it has an expectation of privacy in their documents, records and writings. FOIA's are essential and valuable. Just this morning I heard on NPR a little snip on a town council in California that praised the LA Times for making a simple request of the salaries of the council members. That council thought the request was "suspect" as well and tried to stonewall. It also wanted to know what the newspaper's intent was and, undoubtedly, feared it would be used to smear them. Of course, as it turned out, they were making $1,000,000 a year or so in a small town outside of LA. I'm not equating the corruption in that council with the content of professorial emails which will probably reveal nothing of interest. But, the fact is that the excuses the professors raise are the same ones raised by these and other public bodies who face a FOIA. This is just another form of NIMBY--it's ok for every

Macabre Sunset

Tue, Apr 19, 2011 : 10:03 a.m.

Not sure what secrecy and blind political activism have to do with academic freedom. Since these are government employees, their conduct is relevant. If they were real scholars, they'd have nothing to be ashamed of in their email.