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Sunday, September 17, 2017

Two Fs that are NOT obscene: FOIA and First Amendment!

Something very significant occurred recently in the City of Grand Rapids. The city was forced to release a series of audio recordings from the police department…recordings that were seriously damaging because they showed an obvious intent to give favorable treatment to an obviously drunk driver. The reason: the guy was an assistant prosecutor.

The significance, here, is not that they tried to go easy on somebody from the prosecutor’s office, although that, too, is not to be disregarded. One can be sure that if you or I got stopped by the same cops, for the same infraction, nobody would be on some secret phone line trying to save our butts. No, the real significance here is that the information was obtained through Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act.

MLive, publisher of the Grand Rapids Press, refused to take no for an answer, contending that “the people have a right to know how government is acting on its behalf, how taxpayer dollars are being spent, and that good judgment is being exercised in a fair and transparent manner.”  MLive took this challenge all the way to the Michigan Court of Appeals, and the public was served.

I raise this issue to point out the fact that journalists are not the only ones making good use of the Freedom of Information Act. I don’t think a week goes by that HFP doesn’t file a FOIA request on behalf of someone in prison. We have a lawyer who counsels and advises us on these issues, and Matt has become adept at using this system, thus providing valuable assistance to many Michigan inmates.

But, and here’s the rub, you cannot imagine the resistance to transparency. I have a friend who’s an elected county official , and who boasts that the FOIA coordinator in his county---a retired lawyer---makes certain that the absolute minimum bit of information is released under provisions of the act. Witness how the City of Grand Rapids battled the Press, perhaps thinking that the extensive fights and legal costs would prod the newspaper into just dropping the issue. Matt constantly meets resistance and encounters delays, making one wonder just how much stuff is hidden in those records that officials don’t want prisoners---or the public---to know!

As taxpayers and followers of HFP activities, I write this piece to remind you just how important this procedure is, but also to stress that it must be safeguarded against those who seem to like official secrets and believe the public does not have a right to know. Prosecutorial misconduct and the hiding of evidence can and do result in wrongful convictions. 

A tip of the HFP hat to those courageous journalists who effectively pursue the truth through FOIA requests.

We’re finding it a useful tool, also. And we’re not going to back down, either!

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