By Liz Kudwa
A: FOIA stands for the Freedom of Information Act. Generally speaking, the FOIA allows for the disclosure of records that are requested in writing. There is a federal FOIA which applies only to federal agencies and does not allow access to records held by Congress, the courts, or by state or local government agencies. Each federal agency is responsible for meeting its FOIA responsibilities for its own records. At the state and local level, each state has its own public access laws.
The Michigan Freedom of Information Act is very similar to the federal FOIA. It just applies specifically to the public bodies in the State of Michigan. The State of Michigan Freedom of Information Act sets requirements for the disclosure of public records by all “public bodies” in the state. A summary definition of “public bodies” includes all state agencies, county and other local governments, school boards, other boards, departments, commissions, councils, and public colleges and universities.
Types of public records that are open to disclosure in Michigan include minutes of open meetings, officials’ voting records, staff manuals, final orders or decisions in contested cases and the records on which they were made, and promulgated rules. Also covered are other written statements which implement or interpret laws, rules or policies, including, but not limited to, guidelines, manuals and forms with instructions, adopted or used by the agency in the discharge of its functions.
It does not matter what form the record is in. The act applies to any handwriting, typewriting, printing, photostating, photographing, photocopying and every other means of recording. It includes letters, words, pictures, sounds or symbols, or combinations thereof, as well as papers, maps, magnetic or punched cards, discs, drums, or other means of recording or retaining meaningful content. It does not include computer software.
There also are certain types of information that are exempt from being disclosed. Public bodies may withhold certain categories of public records from public disclosure, but they are not required to. This is by no means a comprehensive list, but some examples of information that cannot be disclosed include specific personal information about an individual if the release would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of that individual’s privacy, trade secrets or commercial or financial information voluntarily provided to an agency for use in developing governmental policy, information subject to attorney-client privilege, information subject to other privileges such as counselor-client and those recognized by statute or court rule, pending public bids to enter into contracts, appraisals of real property to be acquired by a public body, test questions and answers, scoring keys and other examination instruments, or medical, counseling or psychological facts which would reveal an individual’s identity.
If you’d like to do some more reading on the matter, you can find “Freedom Of Information And The Right To Know: The Origins And Applications Of The Freedom Of Information Act” by Herbert N. Foerstel at the Capital Area District Library. Also visit the U.S. Department of Justice’s website at http://www.usdoj.gov/oip/index.html or the State of Michigan’s Attorney General’s website at http://www.michigan.gov/ag and click on “Consumer Laws” and then you will see link for FOIA. Both these websites will provide full details concerning the Freedom of Information Act.
Elizabeth Kudwa is the Head Librarian at the Leslie Library,
201 Pennsylvania Street, Leslie, MI. Contact her at 517-589-9400 or by e-mail at