How to File a FOIA
What is FOIA?
FOIA is an acronym for the Freedom of Information Act.
FOIA is an open-government law grounded in the principle that the public should be able to access public records and information about the workings of their government.
FOIA provides that the people are entitled to full and complete information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts and policies of those who represent them as public officials, and that such access is necessary to enable people monitor government to ensure that it is being conducted in the public interest.
Unless a specific exemption applies, public bodies must allow public access to all public records.
How do I file a FOIA request in Illinois?
1. Find the FOIA officer.
Every public body is required to have a FOIA officer to handle requests and specify where requests should be sent. If the public body has a website, this information must be posted there. There should also be information about the structure of the public body and the kinds of records it maintains. For example, if you are looking to file a FOIA request with the City of Chicago, visit the FOIA page on cityofchicago.com.
2. Write your request.
There is no "magic language" to FOIA request:
- No specific format is required, but it must be in writing. (Email or fax are best so you can prove it was received.)
- The public body cannot make you use their standard form.
- No reason for your request is necessary, except for a statement about whether your request is for a "commercial purpose" (see FOIA Section 1(c-10) for a definition) or if you are seeking a copying fee waiver.
- Describe the records you want, either by category ("all documents related to ___"), by specifically identifying the records ("the contract between ___ and ___"), or by specifying an electronic search ("all of the mayor's emails from last week containing the word 'pothole' or 'potholes'").
- Explain how you want the documents delivered (available for in-person inspection, paper copies, PDF scans, original electronic format; delivered by email, pick-up, mail).
A sample FOIA request:
January 1, 2014
Dear FOIA Officer:
This is a request under the Freedom of Information Act for records showing your agency's current employees and officers, including each person's name, title, hire date, current salary and overtime paid in 2013.
Please send me the records as an electronic Excel spreadsheet, or if that is not possible, in the electronic format in which you keep the records. If the records are only in paper format, please scan them into PDFs. Please email me the records, or if that is not possible, mail them to me on a CD. If you are unable to send the records in one of the formats I requested, please contact me to discuss alternatives. Please contact me for my authorization of any charge in excess of $10. I am not making this request for a commercial purpose.
Mary Frances O'Connor
Better Government Association
223 West Jackson
Chicago, IL 60606
3. Wait for the response.
- The public body must comply with or deny the request within 5 business days
- The public body may extend the deadline for another 5 business days in certain circumstances.
- No response from the public body is the same as a denial.
- Keep notes and records (names, dates, times) of all communications, including phone calls, and communicate in writing as much as possible. Insist that the public body document everything in writing, state the specific FOIA exemptions being asserted, and provide a detailed factual basis for its exemption claims.
What do I do if my FOIA request is denied?
Several options are available:
- Go to the FOIA statute and read the actual language of the exemption being claimed. Has the public body failed to address each and every part of the exemption language (for example, language saying, "but only to the extent")? Does something not make sense? If so, contact the public body, explain why you think the public body is wrong, and push back. Sometimes this works.
- Submit a request for review with the Public Access Counselor ("PAC") in the Illinois Attorney General's office. Please note that this must be done within a specified time period after the denial. Click here for the PAC's office webpage on requests for review.
- File a lawsuit to enforce your FOIA rights.
- Tell us about your situation, browse our events for the next FOIA clinic hosted by the BGA, or contact Annum Haider at firstname.lastname@example.org or 312-821-9031.