Freedom of Information Act

The Illinois Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is the state law that governs access to public records. FOIA is based on the principle that citizens are entitled to information on how their governments work. FOIA allows citizens to monitor the actions of public officials and hold them accountable.

The Freedom of Information Act:

  • Says the public has a right to records created or kept by government, unless the records are specifically exempt from disclosure

  • Sets up a timeline and other rules that public bodies must follow when records are requested

  • Provides mechanisms for citizens to appeal if their request is denied

  • Contains penalties for non-compliance

Sounds good, right? The truth is that FOIA contains broad exemptions, and government bodies sometimes resist or even ignore requests for public documents that aren’t exempt. They regard requests as costly and bothersome; they don’t want to share information that could subject them to criticism or embarrassment; or they simply don’t think transparency is a priority.

That’s why it’s important for citizens to understand how FOIA works — and what to do when it doesn’t.

You can find the complete statute here:

https://www.ilga.gov/legislation/ilcs/ilcs3.asp?ActID=85&ChapterID=2

Here’s how to file a FOIA request:

https://www.bettergov.org/news/how-to-file-a-foia-request-in-illinois/

(Anchor the civic engagement item here, including the art?)

(There’s even a template you can use) https://docs.google.com/document/d/1yQWvTMXJmYgQyFtwgcw5SZA9KOGFZCr8_kddrBqdYgc/edit

Things you should know:

  • You don’t have to use an official form, but you should make your FOIA request in writing.

  • You don’t have to explain why you want the records.

  • FOIA limits how much a public body can charge for producing the documents. The first 50 (black and white) pages are free. After that, the charge can’t exceed 15 cents per page.

  • If you ask for records in an electronic format, the public body can charge only the actual cost of reproduction.

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Timeline:

  • The public body has five business days to respond to your request. (Failure to respond within five business days is the same as a denial.)

  • The public body can unilaterally extend that window by five more business days if it needs more time to collect or produce the records, but it must notify the requester of the extension and the reason.

  • The law allows the requestor and the public body to negotiate their own timetable. Be flexible when you can.

  • If a public body misses its deadlines but later provides records, it can’t charge for them.

  • A public body that doesn’t respond to a request within five business days forfeits the right to claim that the request is “unduly burdensome” and therefore exempt.

Exemptions:

FOIA contains several pages listing records that are exempt from disclosure.

Some of the exemptions are quite broad. For example, a public body is not required to release

  • Private information, such as social security number, driver’s license number, personal financial information, medical records

  • Information contained in a public record that would constitute an “unwarranted invasion of personal privacy”

  • Information that, if disclosed, would interfere with an ongoing criminal investigation

  • Drafts, memos and other records produced as part of the “deliberative process”

A public body can also claim that a FOIA request is “unduly burdensome,” meaning the effort required to produce the records would outweigh the public interest in the information. The public body must give the requester a chance to narrow the request before claiming this exemption.

There also are dozens of records that are specifically exempt, including

  • Records about the security of prisons and detention facilities

  • Educational records, including exams, student disciplinary records and certain teaching or research materials

  • Student records, including grades and attendance

  • Records pertaining to government employee grievances or disciplinary processes (except for final outcomes)

  • Minutes of closed government meetings

  • Attorney/client communications

  • Collective bargaining records (except for the final contract)

  • Reviews of nursing home sexual assaults or deaths

The list of exemptions grows longer with every legislative session, as governments and special interests seek to conduct their business in secret. The Better Government Association’s policy team lobbies against bills that would weaken FOIA (or the Open Meetings Act).

Redactions

If you request a public document that contains information that is exempt, the public body may redact that information before releasing the record.

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If your request is denied (or ignored) you can

  • Contact the Public Access Counselor (see below)

  • File a lawsuit in Circuit Court. It’s up to the public body to prove “by clear and convincing evidence” that a record is exempt from FOIA