Conservative think tank’s motivations questioned after records request on labor relations professors
Image has not been found. URL: http://images.americanindependent.com/2010/08/MahurinElephant_Thumb.jpgA very broad Freedom of Information Act request for all emails and communications from professors in labor relations programs at the state’s major public universities is sparking controversy and questions about the motivation for the request.
Talking Points Memo reported Tuesday that the Mackinac Center, a conservative think tank located in Midland, on March 25 submitted FOIA requests to Michigan State University, Wayne State University and the University of Michigan. One request was released to TPM and seeks all emails that include such words and phrases as “Scott Walker”; “Wisconsin”; “Madison”; “Maddow”; and “any other emails dealing with the collective bargaining situation in Wisconsin.” The request covers all communications from Jan. 1 to March 25.
The Mackinac Center employees contacted by TPM were opaque about the intent of their transparency request, prompting questions about their motivations from progressive groups.
“Wealthy corporations, right-wing radicals and their foot soldiers such as the Mackinac Center will stop at nothing to squeeze people who work hard for a living and silence those who fight on behalf of all families in Michigan,” said Progress Michigan Executive Director David Holtz. “People across Michigan are getting hammered by a tough economy, budget cuts, job losses and foreclosures. Now, they are at risk of having their voice taken away by a secretive, conservative front-group with deep pockets and no tolerance for those who dare disagree with them.”
Other progressive groups weighed on the situations as well.
“The people of Michigan deserve a voice, especially at a time when politicians, and special interest groups like the Mackinac Center are doing everything in their power to distract Michigan residents from paying attention to what really matters,” said Linda Teeter, executive director of Michigan Citizen Action. “This FOIA request is changing the subject from the fact that K-12 funding is under attack, unemployment benefits have been cut, and prisons and state police posts are being closed.”
Some argue that the Center is seeking to intimidate those who speak for union workers with the request.
“After the complete failure of its economic policies over the past decade, the Mackinac Center now seeks to cast a shadow of fear and intimidation over Michigan so that no one will dare question any state’s action denying persons their basic right to join with other folks to improve their working conditions,” said John Philo, legal director of Sugar Law Center for Economic and Social Justice. “Along with a majority of Michiganders, we will be working to ensure that our Constitutional right to freedom of association and our human right to form and join labor unions prevail over the Center’s discredited agenda and repugnant tactics.”
But even one of the professors whose emails are targeted by the request told TPM that the Center may be looking for evidence of illegal use of public resources:
Roland Zullo, a professor at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Research on Labor, Employment, and the Economy and subject to the request, suggested the Mackinac Center is trying to catch labor studies professors in illegal political advocacy on state time.
“It sounds like they’re trying to catch us advocating for the recall or the election of a politician,” Zullo said. “Because we’re not supposed to do that, we’re not supposed to use our University of Michigan resources for something like that.”
Allowing citizens and watchdog groups to file requests looking for evidence of illegal actions by government employees is one of the principal reasons that the Freedom of Information Act was passed.
Ken Bunting, executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition, says the situation, which is similar to a case in Wisconsin, highlights an ongoing tension between transparency advocates and those who worry about privacy issues and academic freedom concerns. And whatever the motivation of the Center, he says, the law makes such requests perfectly legal.
“This wont be the first time that some one concerned about privacy or academic freedom are on the other side of transparency,” says Bunting. “My feeling on this whether or not the requester is motivated by nefarious purposes or not, the professors should release the documents under those narrow exemptions.”
Coincidentally, perhaps even ironically, government transparency advocates celebrate Sunshine Week in honor of FOIA laws around March 16 — James Madison’s birthday — every year.