Editor’s Note: The FOIA request in question was submitted by Marquette Social Scene’s Brice Burge.
Oral arguments will be heard today, June 29, in the North Wind Federal Court Case, but important emails between two defendants will not be included thanks to Northern Michigan University administrators.
NMU Vice President of Finance and Administration and Freedom of Information Act Officer Gavin Leach and NMU legal counsel Kurt McCammon have decided that emails between co-defendants Aubrey Kall and Steven Neiheisel are protected under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), which is used to protect individual educational information of students.
Kall is the chairperson of the North Wind Board of Directors and a student at NMU while Neiheisel is the business advisor for the North Wind, a voting board member and a vice president of the university. Both have testified that they consider each other to be equals on the board in their affidavits submitted to federal court.
“It is outrageous that NMU would withhold this information under the guise of FERPA,” said Society of Professional Journalists Freedom of Information Committee Chair and University of Arizona professor David Cuillier. “Not only are they putting the university in some risk of liability for violating public records law, but it’s a slap in the face to the public and students. It’s a shame, and students, parents, legislators and the public should demand accountability and transparency.”
The emails were supposed to be a part of a FOIA request for emails between Kall and North Wind Board of Directors, Neiheisel’s secretary Carol Brugman, business manager Clair Laws and then editor in chief Emma Finkbeiner.
The FOIA request specifically stated that the emails should regard the North Wind board.
“Due to phrasing of this request, Kall would be considered the chairperson of a board at Northern Michigan University. Her status as a student would not have an effect on this request and therefore does not have any conflict with the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA),” the request said.
After the emails were excluded, an appeal was sent to NMU President Fritz Erickson, focusing on the controversial use of FERPA to circumvent the Freedom of Information Act. The appeal was denied.
The denials were a huge blow against students rights and citizen oversight at the university, as money from the Student Activity Fee (SAF) is used by the North Wind. The Student Activity Fee is part of tuition collected by the public university. Instead, Leach, McCammon and Erickson are saying that the educational relationship between a student and an administrator is more important than due diligence of university funds.
Cuillier said this interpretation of FERPA takes power away from student leaders on campus.
“If the university doesn’t deem them open then that means student government officials have no power – (they) are just puppets to be patted on the head and treated as if they are playing house,” he said. “I don’t think students or student officers would want to be treated that way. If they have real power, which I think they do, then their correspondence is to be treated as such.”
As the appeal to Erickson has been denied, the only other action left by law is to sue. No action has been determined at this time.
The North Wind case begins at 10 a.m. at the Marquette Federal Courthouse, which shares a building with the Post Office on the corner of Third and Washington.