Using the Freedom of Information Acts

The public interest is served only when government operates in the open. It was with this central premise of representative government in mind that the U.S. Congress and innumerable state legislatures, including Illinois, have in recent years enacted remarkable laws called Freedom of Information Acts. Freedom of Information Acts, or “FOIAS,” give ordinary citizens the right to find out what their government is doing. What information these laws govern and how you can use them form the basis of this week’s column.

The presumption of FOIAS is that the person seeking the requested information is entitled to it. Examples of records that must be made available include the final voting records of every official in all proceedings of public bodies; names, salaries, titles and dates of employment of all employees and officers of public bodies; inspection reports, factual reports and studies, whether prepared by or for a public body; and statements and interpretations of policy which have been adopted by a public body. You can also make a Freedom of Information request to obtain your own medical records, mental health records or criminal record. Whether your “need to know” is motivated by political activism, the demands of academic research or simple curiosity, your request should be honored.

The first step in using the Freedom of Information Acts (FOIA’s) might be not to use them. Most government employees are aware of your right to inspect and copy records. Find the correct agency for the information you want and call or write them. If you explain what you want, they might help you acquire it without an official request. If your informal efforts are unproductive, however, you should consider filling an official FOIA request.

A Freedom of Information request can be made by writing a simple letter addressed to the agency or agencies provide forms for this purpose. Make your request as specific as possible, including anything that could help the agency find the information desired. State explicitly that you are making your request pursuant to the state and/or federal FOIA, whichever is applicable. You do not need to explain why you want the information.

Federal and state agencies are required to respond promptly to FOIA requests; federal agencies have ten (10) working days and Illinois state agencies seven (7) working days to respond. If the agency responds that the request is not specific or is unworkable, the request can be revised. A series of requests can progressively narrow the field of inquiry, as by starting with a request for a listing of file subject headings followed up by a request for documents under a given heading.

If a governmental agency denies your FOIA request, it must assert one of the grounds or exemptions listed in the act. There are nine (9) exemptions stipulated under the federal law and twenty-nine (29) exemptions under the recently amended Illinois FOIA. Categories include personnel and medical records, tax returns, the identity of police informants, trade secrets and contract bids in possession of the governmental agency, etc. Many of these exemptions are designed to protect the privacy of individuals from third persons. As mentioned earlier, you can, of course, request information about yourself. The government can also deny information which relates to national security and certain aspects of domestic law enforcement.

Finally, request may be denied if they are “too burdensome”, i.e., if they would require the reproduction of thousands of documents. Even if they agency is willing to copy the documents you request, you may be restrained by the cost of reproducing them. Many agency documents will be released to you without charge, but agencies are authorized to charge for photocopying. If your need for the information is great and your budget is small, the agency may reduce the fee. Be sure to ask.

If your FOIA is refused for a reason you do not accept, you have the right to have the agency’s refusal reviewed by a court which has the power to order the agency to release the information.