October 13, 2016

A primer on the Freedom of Information Act

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This page is a guide to the Illinois Freedom of Information Act, with basic information about what the law entails. You can read the entire law here. If you have additional questions about the Freedom of Information Act, check out this helpful “Frequently Asked Questions” compiled by the Illinois Attorney General’s office.

 What can you get?

Public records, defined under the law as “all records, reports, forms, writings, letters, memoranda, books, papers, maps, photographs, microfilms, cards, tapes, recordings, electronic data processing records, electronic communications, recorded information and all other documentary materials pertaining to the transaction of public business, regardless of physical form or characteristics, having been prepared by or for, or having been or being used by, received by, in the possession of, or under the control of any public body.”

What can’t you get?

– Private and personal information, including things like social security numbers, passwords, home contact information, etc. This includes information in “which the subject’s right to privacy outweighs any legitimate public interest in obtaining the information.”

– Law enforcement information that would interfere with a pending or ongoing investigation or jeopardize a confidential source.

– Information that, if disclosed, could put someone in physical danger.

– Preliminary drafts or notes in which opinions are expressed or policies are formulated, unless the record is publicly cited and identified by the head of the public body.

– Business trade secrets or commercial or financial information that is proprietary, privileged or confidential and disclosure would cause competitive harm.

– Proposals and bids for any contract until a final selection is made.

– Requests that are “unduly burdensome” or “the burden on the public body to produce the information outweighs the public interest in the information.”

Do you have to know what you’re asking for?

No. You do not have to know the specific name of the records that you’re requesting. You can describe the information you want and work with the agency to make your requested information clear.

How long does it take?

A government entity has five business days to respond. This timeline starts the business day after the request is received. For example, if a request is sent before 5 p.m. on Monday during a typical, five-day business week, the first day is Tuesday, the second is Wednesday, third is Thursday, fourth is Friday, and fifth would be the following Monday.

When can it take longer?

If a request meets any of the following criteria, a government entity can extend the request for an additional five working days.

The information is stored at a different location;

The request requires the collection of a substantial number of documents;

The request requires an extensive search;

The requested records have not been located and require additional effort to find;

The requested records need to be reviewed by staff who can determine whether they are exempt from FOIA;

The requested records cannot be produced without unduly burdening the public body or interfering with its operations;

The request requires the public body to consult with another public body who has substantial interest in the subject matter of the request.

Do I have to pay for FOIA requests?

It depends. If you’re requesting paper copies, you can get 50 pages of black and white copies for free, and any documents after that can cost up to $.15 per page. A government entity can charge a small fee for color copies.

For electronic copies, you can only be charged for the cost of CD or flash drive on which the information is given to you.

If you’re seeing to disseminate the information for the public good, you can request a fee waiver. You can also request a waiver if no personal or commercial benefit will be received from document disclosure.

If I don’t get what I want, what can I do?

Ask the FOIA officer why you didn’t get the information. If they didn’t know you were looking for it, they might be willing to help you word your request in a different way. If your request is denied, in full or in part, you can also file an appeal with the Illinois Attorney General’ Public Access Counselor. You can do so by contacting

Sarah Pratt
Public Access Counselor
Office of the Attorney General
500 S. 2nd Street
Springfield, Illinois 62701
Phone:

1-877-299-FOIA

(1-877-299-3642)

Publicaccess@atg.state.il.gov