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Sheriff reacts to negative coverage with delayed FOIA responses

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  1. Freedom of Information
A Michigan county sheriff’s office will no longer release information in a routine fashion after the Argus-Press published an article…

A Michigan county sheriff’s office will no longer release information in a routine fashion after the Argus-Press published an article criticizing the department, the newspaper says.

The Shiawassee County Sheriff, Jon Wilson, said last week that the Argus-Press will need to submit written formal Freedom of Information Act requests for press releases and other information. The department would previously send press releases right after incidents occurred and even comment about a case on scene without any formal request.

Michigan’s FOIA law requires agencies to respond within five business days or request an extension to 10 days. This could substantially hinder the Argus-Press’s coverage of public safety news, said Dick Campbell, editor of the paper.

"We’ve submitted two or three FOIA requests already [this week] and have heard nothing yet,” Campbell said. “We usually get information on fatal auto accidents, shootings and things like that – news that spoils after a matter of 12, 24 hours. FOIA requests could take as long as 10 days. That doesn’t work for a daily newspaper."

The criticizing article, published in January despite Wilson’s warning that if the paper ran it he would change the records requests policy, included reports of an alleged assault between the sheriff and a deputy.

Dawn L. Hertz, an attorney representing the Michigan Press Association, said she sees cases like this from time to time, which highlight the unfortunate irony of FOIA laws.

"As public entities are becoming more and more aware of the FOIA, more are inclined to force people to go through hoops to get information rather than just providing it over-the-counter like the way we’ve been able to do in times past,” Hertz said. “The FOIA is a two-edged sword. On one hand it helps; on the other hand it allows them to drag their feet."

She said some Michigan case law exists that could help the Argus-Press if the sheriff doesn’t end up honoring its formal requests at all. It would have to prove that it is being punished (in this case, being denied records even after filing a formal request) for its truthful, albeit negative, coverage. Hertz said the best way to go about resolving problems like this is to resort to stories about the issue, which is what she’s seen papers do in the past.

"I always say that the pen is very powerful, and papers shouldn’t hesitate to use it,” Hertz said. “Keep up the coverage. That’s probably the most effective weapon."