FOIA At 50: Public Records Laws Important, Often Ignored

You'd think at this point it wouldn't be so hard for us to get the public information we're entitled to. Think again.

We recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of the federal Freedom of Information Act, landmark legislation that opened U.S. government records to the public and spawned state FOIA laws around the country.

Illinois’ aspirational statute says FOIA’s the only way “to enable the people to fulfill their duties of discussing public issues fully and freely, making informed political judgments and monitoring government to ensure that it is being conducted in the public interest.”

That’s true, but on the ground FOIA’s routinely ignored by public officials, forcing watchdogs like the Better Government Association to wage a permanent battle to get information we’re entitled to.

We’ve had to file 20-plus FOIA lawsuits in the past two years, and with rare exceptions we’ve either won the case, gotten records through a settlement, or we’re still litigating. 

Here are some of the highlights, or lowlights, depending on your perspective:

  • We’re on our fifth suit against the Chicago Police Department, and that includes ongoing fights for videos of police shootings.  Especially troubling:  CPD, which is empowered to enforce the law, routinely violates it by ignoring response deadlines. 
  • We’ve also had to sue Chicago Public School officials twice for sitting on FOIA requests. We appreciate their budget constraints, but that’s not an excuse for withholding public information.
  • The Illinois Comptroller’s office and the City of Chicago both claim that public officials can circumvent FOIA by using “private” email accounts.  We won our case against the Comptroller, but the City is still fighting us.
  •  The City and the Governor’s Office both argue they can withhold email discussions about how to handle media inquiries, but we think the public is entitled to know how they’re attempting to spin reporters and watchdogs. The court agreed with us in our case against the City, but our lawsuit against the Governor’s Office is continuing.
  • We successfully sued the Village of Rosemont after trustees passed an ordinance creating a new FOIA exemption for financial details of rental agreements at their publicly owned facilities.
  • We’ve sued and obtained records from a Chicago charter school, City Colleges, the Water Reclamation District, IDOT, and multiple suburban Cook County villages and school districts. We have open cases against Cook County government, the county state’s attorney, and the entities that run Navy Pier. 
  • We filed a “friend of the court” brief opposing the Chicago police union’s attempt to force the City to destroy misconduct records even when they’ve been properly requested under FOIA.  An Illinois appellate court ruled in our favor last week.

Despite our formidable track record, public officials are likely to keep trying to circumvent FOIA and force us into court because stonewalling consequences are minimal, and taxpayers foot the legal bills. 

So what can state lawmakers do about it? 

  • The best step is to emulate the State of Washington, where public offices are fined for each day records are improperly withheld. Having to explain a potential six-figure fine to taxpayers might incentivize compliance. 
  • It would also help to eliminate trivial exemption claims when the release of information won’t do any harm.

The late political science professor Francis E. Rourke put it this way: “Nothing could be more axiomatic for a democracy than the principle of exposing the process of government to relentless public criticism and scrutiny.”

That’s a principle we’ll keep fighting for no matter how many lawsuits it takes.

So Happy Anniversary FOIA!

About the Author
  • Andy Shaw

    Andy Shaw is an award-winning Chicago journalist who spent 37 years covering local, state and national politics, business, education, and day-to-day news at the City News Bureau of Chicago, Chicago Sun-Times, NBC 5 and ABC 7, before joining BGA.