Lawyer fights UM to see immigration foe's papers

John Tanton, who has helped launch a dozen groups, is a study in contrasts.

Detroit — An immigration activist argued Wednesday in the state Court of Appeals that the University of Michigan is flouting public records law by barring access to papers donated by an anti-immigration leader.

At issue is an archive donated to UM by John Tanton, the so-called architect of the modern anti-immigration movement. Tanton gave the university's Bentley Historical Library the documents on the condition that they not be released until 2035.

"I want to get the papers because this is John Tanton ... the architect of the anti-immigration movement," said Hassan M. Ahmad, a Virginia-based immigration attorney. "These are the policies of the entire framing of the immigration debate that are affecting now the lives of millions of people. Papers that show the genesis and the development of these policies should not be shrouded in secrecy. We should not have to wait until 2035." 

Ahmad, who is seeking access to about 10 boxes of documents, is asking the appeals court to overturn a ruling by a Michigan Court of Claims judge dismissing his suit against UM.

Tanton, viewed as a racist by some and a visionary by others, helped launch a dozen groups, including three main players in today's anti-immigration movement: the Federation for American Immigration Reform, NumbersUSA and the Center for Immigration Studies. He's in his 80s and lives in a Petoskey nursing home.

 Attorney Brian Schwartz, who is representing UM, told the judges during his arguments that the Freedom of Information Act doesn't automatically entitle an individual to see what is contained in a public library.

"Just because someone goes and FOIAs them doesn't automatically open them up," Schwartz argued Wednesday.

A donor's agreement is in place surrounding the donation of Tanton's material, Schwartz said, adding that the boxes of Tanton's papers and materials haven't been "integrated" into the Bentley Library's system yet.

Citing precious artifacts as an example, Schwartz said all materials in a public library aren't always made available to the public, such as the extensive Papyrology Collection at UM's Hatcher Graduate Library.

Court of Appeals Judge Thomas Cameron asked Schwartz if what UM did was "contract around FOIA."

Cameron told Schwartz it "seems to be the only reason (the school) is denying access is the agreement."

Schwartz told Cameron: "We're not going to release them because of the agreement."

In a statement, UM vice president and general counsel Timothy Lynch said the university "stands by its view of the law, including under the Michigan Library Privacy Act, which allows the library to determine which materials are circulated."

"If public universities are not permitted to allow donors of papers to keep some portions of their materials private for a period of time (as in this case and at the Library of Congress), those papers will go to private libraries and private collections where the public will have no right to view them ever," Lynch said.  

Saginaw attorney Philip Ellison, who represents Ahmad, said after the hearing that Schwartz presented a "weak" case for blocking the release of Tanton's papers.

"... Safety of the physical integrity of the documents isn't at play here," Ellison said. "The issue isn't about seeing the records ... governments can protect records if they are in frail condition; there's no dispute about that. They can take pictures of them, they can share them, they could have you come in and look at them under glass. What UM is saying here is you can't even come in and look at the Tanton papers at all." 

No decision was made on whether the lawsuit should be reinstated. Ellison said he expects a decision in four to five weeks.