While Marquette has been divided over Northern Michigan’s student paper The North Wind, some people are just rolling their eyes and saying “stuff like that doesn’t actually happen here.” But now the responses with federal court are filed and there are interesting arguments on both sides regarding personal freedom, educational rights and equality no matter where the case is held.
We’ve broken up the case so far into four parts to give as equal and fair coverage as possible, using quotes from public documents, interviewing the people involved and providing all of the case filings for the public to read. Today is the third part of the series going over the plaintiffs’ evidence and the ongoing concern over a FOIA request.
The plaintiffs Cheryl Reed and Michael Williams are all about being open in regards to their federal court case regarding their rights with the North Wind.
That includes their evidence, which has 125 pages of Facebook messages between the five student members of the North Wind Board of Directors.
Those messages show that the five students colluded to act as one group.
That they believed they had the right to dictate the tone of the content and dismiss lawyers from the journalists.
That their opinion of the use of the Freedom of Information Act was influenced by one-on-one meetings with Business Advisor of the North Wind and Vice President of Enrollment and Student Services.
And that they had to pick a side: either the journalists or NMU.
That was the big evidence dropped by the plaintiffs from the fifth student of the board Mary Malaske along with a declaration of her testimony. That testimony put a different light on the one-on-one meetings organized by Neiheisel.
“Neiheisel used our individual meeting to complain forcefully about the North Wind’s FOIA requests,” she wrote. “He said the newspaper’s story about the university’s contract with Starbucks put NMU in a bad light and that another FOIA request that never resulted in a story was a big waste of time and energy. He suggest to me that it would not be a decision to keep doing FOIA requests because the paper did not have a lot of money.”
Putting Northern Michigan University in a bad light is a real concern for Neiheisel due to his job. Part of his job description is to oversee the aggressive marketing campaign NMU has implemented in the last few years to increase enrollment. Enrollment has been a serious issue for NMU, which President Fritz Erickson referenced as being a key factor in the AAUP negotiations.
Neiheisel referenced that he is the person at Northern in regards to enrollment in which he chastised the North Wind’s inaccuracies for saying that enrollment had dropped the last two semesters when it had dropped the last four.
The issues regarding the one-on-one meetings in January is one of the key parts of the case. The plaintiffs believe that the timing of the meeting compared to a Freedom of Information Act request about administrator emails.
The timeline is as such:
(1) Emma Finkbeiner, news editor at the time, requested emails regarding multiple NMU administrators including Neiheisel on December 7. 2014.
(2) Finkbeiner met with NMU Vice President of Finance and NMU’s FOIA officer Gavin Leach to negotiate lower costs for a charge of $613 down to $300. NMU, under Michigan FOIA law, requires half payment before starting to compile the documents. Board members Jane Milkie, Neiheisel attended the meeting with Reed attending via phone.
(3) Neiheisel emails the five student members of the board through his assistant Carol Bergman on Monday, January 12 requesting a meeting.
(4) All five students meet with Neiheisel over a few days between January 12-16 where some of them discuss FOIA procedures.
(5) Kall refuses to place the issue of spending money for the FOIA request on the agenda for the next board meeting due to time restraints with interviews for business manager. This was brought up in emails between the board before the meeting.
(6) The issue is brought up at the January 16 meeting with the board anyway and fails 4-3 with Morris, Kall, Laksonen and Neiheisel voting against the expenditure, Reed, Milkie and Community Journalist member Kim Eggleston voting in favor. Malaske and Gaidelis was absent. Some defendants said that the vote was not a permanent no, but rather to table the discussion until more information about the request could be produced and concerns of time constraints.
The defense in their response didn’t help their case, saying that Neiheisel used the meeting to go over their roles on the board. Williams said that the students on the board have been inconsistent in their actions.
“Their Facebook exchanges show their perception as having control of our content, which is not what they said in public,” he said. “It shows them colluding in private while carrying on another character in public. I fear people like that holding institutional power.”
Reed said that the messages show that the North Wind was hurt by Neiheisel’s influence and students’ combined actions.
“I believe (the Facebook messages) show that the defendants were colluding to both stop the North Wind from using FOIA’s as an investigative tool and remove me as an advisor who ‘allowed’ the students to pursue requests for public documents,” she said. “They show that Neiheisel also was influencing the students. (Kall) refers to private conversations she’s had with Neihesiel as does (Laksonen).”
That FOIA request keeps coming back into relevance for the plaintiffs. It was the initial controversy that started coverage of the board from local media. The first Facebook message to the group is Kall sharing the post from Brian Cabell’s Word on the Street blog about the denial. The documents recovered in the emails were the subject of many of the North Wind’s articles. In yesterday’s segment, Neiheisel’s testimony about “never never sought information regarding stories the (North Wind) was pursuing or intending to publish” was tied to documents redacted in the request.
New emails between Reed, Erickson and Finkbeiner show the drama tied to that FOIA still isn’t finished.