The Michigan Freedom of Information Act, while used widely by news and media outlets, is available to anyone with the purpose of holding government officials accountable. Tom Sinas, Grand Rapids personal injury attorney, recently appeared on Fox 17 Know the Law to explain how and when the public can use it.
Differentiating Between Michigan Freedom of Information Act and Federal FOIA
There are two types of Freedom of Information Acts – one on the federal level and one on the state level. For purposes for this discussion, we are focusing on the Michigan Freedom of Information Act. The purpose of both Acts is to make government more transparent and, as a result, hold these bodies more accountable.
Our state statute regarding the Michigan Freedom of Information Act outlines when and how the public may access information from the government. While certain groups of people do not have access to FOIA, such as inmates, by and large, it’s accessible to everyone.
How Do You Access FOIA?
First, you do so in writing. The statute requires you to submit written requests to the body that governs the information you want. The statute also states the request must contain enough information that the governing body can understand what you’re asking for.
Michigan law requires public bodies to respond to these requests. Typically, these bodies have a designated person who handles these types of requests. For those requesting information, it’s best to address your request directly to the person who handles FOIA’s to ensure it gets to the right person.
What Will You Get in Response?
You might assume that you’ll receive a response regarding all of the information you requested. However, many times, exemptions and exclusions apply to the Michigan Freedom of Information Act. Government bodies do not have to produce or can redact certain information. For example, governing bodies looking into a criminal case do not have to produce any information that may impede that investigation. Another example is when the governing body has communication with their lawyer. The attorney-client privilege may protect that information. The legislature has also, from time to time, “carved out” certain matters, making them no longer subject to FOIA.
You may also receive partial information. For example, names and key identifiers may be redacted from the record. This is done in order to protect individual privacy.
This is a topic that will likely gain more attention in the coming years as legislation works to see if the system can be improved and, if so, how to do so.