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Page updated April 18, 2010

 Freedom of Information Acts and Contracts, Grants, and Various Agreements

What is the Freedom of Information Act? (FOIA, pronounced foy-yah)

Government organizations and other public organizations, especially those supported by taxpayer funds, should be transparent to taxpayers. Obviously, that includes the University of Michigan.

In the U.S., transparency is the primary reason for federal, state, and local Freedom of Information Acts. These laws stipulate that some types of specifically requested information, such as contracts and nondisclosure agreements, but not trade secrets, must be released to people outside government and other public organizations. They list how requests should be made, what items are covered, the time frame in which a response must occur, and the amounts requestors can be charged. Descriptions of the federal act, which primarily concerns activities of the federal government (but is used as a model for state laws), are found at http://www.rcfp.org/fogg/index.php?i=pt1#c and http://www.justice.gov/oip/foia_updates/Vol_XVII_4/page2.htm.

As an agency of the State of Michigan, the University must comply with the State of Michigan Freedom of Information Act (http://www.umich.edu/%7Eurel/foia.html), which is similar to the federal FOIA in its requirements. Consistent with Regent policy, this law requires the University to provide information about contracts and agreements.


What do we release and not release to comply with FOIA?

As a matter of standard practice, the University does not release all of the information that comes into its possession. Again, to obtain the information of concern, someone needs to file a specific FOIA request, and trade secrets are generally protected. To protect information that is truly confidential, items should be labeled as "confidential" when submitted to the University. Keep in mind that even though labeled as confidential, routine communications may not be protected.

One item the University cannot release is raw experimental data or other information that is linked to or otherwise might invade the privacy of subjects, a practice consistent with the requirements of the Institutional Review Board (the Human Subjects Committee), a group that follows federal guidelines.

In addition, confidential crash data may be obtained in studies, and that information is protected from subpoena by what is commonly referred to as the "Highway Safety Research Institute (HSRI) Law" (Michigan Public Act 26 of 1980). This Law, referred to by UMTRI's original name, allows the state Office of Highway Safety Planning to protect certain research data from subpoena. There is a formal application process for each project. The original application of this law was for interviewing those involved in crashes. Those individuals are more likely to be honest if what they said could not be used against them in legal matters. Potentially this law could be applied more broadly to other situations where establishing the scope of problems and how they might be resolved is more important than blame or responsibility.

At UMTRI, FOIA requests are rare, and Paul Green has never received one since he has been at UMTRI (30 years).