UPDATE 2:45 PM: NMU President Fritz Erickson has requested that the FOIA fees be waived and that the requested materials be provided to The North Wind as soon as possible. You can read the full statement from NMU here:
An intriguing conflict, fraught with legal and public relations implications, is brewing on the campus of Northern Michigan University.
Staff members at The North Wind , the student newspaper, are getting an education they never bargained for.
Here’s the background.
Back in October the newspaper submitted a FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) request to the university, seeking the contracts between NMU and its two coffee vendors, Starbucks and Stone Creek. There was a suspicion that the Stone Creek coffee shop on campus was squeezed out of business because of NMU’s cozy relationship with Starbucks.
The Starbucks chairman, president and CEO, as you probably know, is NMU alumnus Howard Schultz.
In any case, the university, after first claiming it couldn’t produce the Starbucks contract for confidentiality reasons, finally did deliver the contract, and The North Wind published it and wrote an article about it.
Was it an illegal contract? No. Did it show favoritism? Probably. But the questions about it were first raised by students, the questions were legitimate, and the story was certainly worthy of investigation.
Next, in November, the newspaper made a FOIA request for documents related to NMU’s contract with Lenovo, the computer company. There had been some complaints about that partnership, and again there was a suspicion that NMU and a contractor had engaged in a secret, non-competitive deal.
Documents were again provided. The student journalists are now poring through them to see if there’s a story there.
Now, this is where this tale gets really interesting.
Subsequent to the two FOIA requests, one of the student journalists (who doesn’t want her name publicized) claims she was told by an administrator that if she and The North Wind didn’t stop this FOIA harassment, she would be denied good references by her professors when she went seeking a job. She also got the sense her scholarship might be in jeopardy.
A second student, Emma Finkbeiner, the editor of the paper, claims that an administrator told her that funding for the paper would be jeopardized if the FOIAs didn’t stop.
In other words, threats. Intimidation. A challenge to the independence of the student newspaper.
So what does a good journalist do when she smells intimidation? She files another FOIA request, this time requesting emails from six administrators to determine whether there might have been a concerted plan to intimidate the students.
Yikes. Not a great image for NMU.
This time, the university came back and said, even though the previous FOIA documents were free, the new ones–the “intimidation” emails–would cost $613, because of staff time needed to locate them.
That was later reduced to $300.
That’s $300 The North Wind has to come up with. The newspaper’s board, consisting of an administrator, faculty, students and community members, has to approve that expense.
On Friday, at the urging of the administrator, the board said no. No money. You’re on your own.
So now The North Wind, under the tutelage of faculty advisor Cheryl Reed, is seeking outside, pro bono legal advice on how to proceed. They still want those emails.
Reed, by the way, has some serious credentials: A Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting at the Dayton Daily News, for one. She’s a former reporter at the Chicago Sun Times, and she’s written stories for Mother Jones, US News and World Report, Salon and the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.
She didn’t just fall off the turnip truck.
Lotta questions here. Are the student journalists just being a pain in the ass? Have they taken this FOIA thing too far? Are they damaging the university’s image?
On the other hand, are they simply doing what’s demanded of good, tenacious investigative journalists? Are they actually enhancing NMU’s reputation with their independence and perseverance?
And the most important question unfortunately is this: Did administrators actually try to intimidate…threaten…students?
Those $300 emails–and they will be publicized eventually, somehow–may tell the story.
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