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A Better Partnership
August 20, 2015

COA finds that ESPN is entitled to names of MSU student-athletes named as suspects in University police incident reports

In ESPN, Inc. v. Michigan State University, No 326773, the Court of Appeals concluded that the privacy exemption of Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) was not applicable to the redacted names of Michigan State University (“MSU”) student-athletes listed as suspects in the incident reports that ESPN had requested.  As such, MSU must reveal the names of the student-athlete suspects.
 
In September 2014, ESPN submitted a FOIA request asking MSU to provide any incident reports involving a list of student-athletes over a specific period of time. MSU produced the records, but redacted the names and identifying information of the suspects, victims, and witnesses.  In February 2015, ESPN sued MSU to obtain unredacted records.  After holding a hearing, the trial court ordered MSU to disclose the names of the suspects if they were one of the 301 student-athletes identified by ESPN in its request. But the court determined that the privacy exemption applied to the victims and witnesses, even if they were one of the student-athletes identified in the request.  ESPN did not challenge the trial court’s application of the privacy exemption to victims and witnesses, but MSU appealed the order requiring it to reveal the names of the student-athlete suspects.
 
A public body may exempt from FOIA’s general disclosure requirement information that is “of a personal nature” if its disclosure would “constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of an individual’s privacy.” MCL 15.243(1)(a).  Thus the exemption has two prongs, both of which must be met in order for the exemption to apply.  With respect to the first prong, a person’s name does not by itself provide information of a personal nature; the relevant inquiry is whether the information associated with the name is of a personal nature.  Thus, the issue here is whether the revelation of the student-athlete suspects’ names when coupled with the information in the incident reports constitutes information of a personal nature.  But the Court concluded that it was unnecessary to examine each report to ascertain whether it contained information of a personal nature because, even if they did, the disclosure of such information would not constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of the student-athlete suspect’s privacy under the second prong of the test.
 
To determine whether disclosure would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of an individual’s privacy, courts must balance the public interest in understanding government operations against the privacy interest the Legislature intended the exemption to protect.  The Court of Appeals concluded that the disclosure of the names of the student-athlete suspects serves the public understanding of the operation of MSU’s police department as it would allow evaluation of whether particular student-athletes were treated differently from the general student population or from each other. 

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