ACLU Announces Support for New Effort To Strengthen Access to Illinois Records

Affiliate: ACLU of Illinois
February 16, 2000 12:00 am

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ACLU of Illinois
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CHICAGO — Seeking to assure that all persons in Illinois have access to the public documents and records to which they are entitled, the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois today announced its full support for House Bill 4341.

The measure, sponsored by House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie (D – Chicago), enhances the ability of the average person anywhere in the state to enforce requirements of Illinois’ Freedom of Information Act and levies a penalty on those governmental agencies and individuals that purposefully violate the law.

“This is an important step toward strengthening accountability from governmental agencies at all levels and in all communities,” said Edwin C. Yohnka, spokesperson for the ACLU of Illinois. “HB4341 empowers individuals to fight for their rights, to seek redress in courts and to hold government officials responsible for their actions.”

A 1999 study directed by the Associated Press and fourteen Illinois daily newspapers revealed a poor record of compliance with requirements of the existing FOIA statute. Across the state, less than one-third of the “tests” performed by reporters posing as average citizens resulted in FOIA requirements being followed.

In some instances, employees in governmental offices displayed a shocking lack of knowledge or interest in FOIA requirements. In one disturbing incident, a county law enforcement official shredded a copy of the FOIA law in front of the reporter presenting a request, angrily declaring that he did not have to follow any such law.

The vast majority of other states in the nation makes it easier than the Illinois’ statute for individuals to collect attorneys’ fees if they successfully challenge a denial of a FOIA request, with only one state setting out similar barriers as Illinois.

Currently, there is no fine or penalty levied against a governmental agency or governmental official for violation of the Illinois’ FOIA statute. Thirteen states provide for a criminal penalty for violations of open government laws, measures similar to Illinois’ FOIA.

Rep. Currie’s legislation places Illinois more in line with the mainstream of state statutes on this issue. It enables individuals to seek and recover legal fees when they are unfairly and unnecessarily denied access to public documents and records.

This will, the ACLU said, greatly assist in the process of seeking and securing legal assistance – since a lawyer can expect to be paid a fee and recover litigation costs if an appeal is successful. Without such a provision, few attorneys would take on such cases. The knowledge that legal fees could be recovered also should raise awareness about the importance of adhering to FOIA requirements in government agencies all across the state.

The second key component of the legislation is a penalty provision, making a purposeful violation of the Act by a government official a petty offense, one punishable with a fine of up to $1,000.

“This measure will finally put teeth in the FOIA law,” Yohnka said. “It will allow the public to get all of the information to which they are entitled, which allows them to participate fully in the various public policy debates that take place at all levels of government, state and local. This is the ultimate good government measure and should be supported by each and every member of the legislature.”

Representative Currie’s effort to strengthen FOIA also is supported by the Illinois Press Association.

The ACLU of Illinois has been pursuing a significant FOIA enforcement case in state court. The matter, Chicago Alliance for Neighborhood Safety v. Chicago Police Department, seeks to gain basic information from the City of Chicago’s Police Department about community policing activities. The City has consistently denied the community group access to key materials about the community policing program, even while sharing the information with academic researchers previously disposed to be supportive of the program.

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