Vexatious Outcome: New Illinois Law Hurts Freedom of Information Act

vexatious

After months of fighting to protect the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which protects citizens’ access to information about their government, the Better Government Association is disappointed with Gov. Pat Quinn’s decision to sign a bill into law that limits the public’s right to know.

While state lawmakers made FOIA stronger in 2010, attempts to chip away at the newly minted protections began as soon as the law went into effect.

FOIA gives public bodies five business days to respond to a request for public information, or 10 days if they get an extension.

But the new law allows public bodies to label citizens as “recurrent requesters”, referred to as “vexatious requesters” in earlier versions of the legislation.

Recurrent requesters are citizens who make more than 50 FOIA requests in one year, 15 in 30 days, or seven in seven days. Once a citizen is labeled a recurrent requester it’s harder for them to access public information for an entire year. Once a public body determines someone is a recurrent requester, there is no appeals process.

The new law requires no set timeline by which a public body must respond to a recurrent requester. Instead, public bodies can take 21 days to give a recurrent requester an estimate as to when they might get the requested documents.

While the new law will also give the Illinois Attorney General more time to spend issuing binding opinions, and less time on bureaucratic paperwork, that does not make up for the bad public policy contained in the remainder of the new law.

Illinois should be moving toward increased openness and transparency, not away from it. Instead of focusing on ways to punish “recurrent requesters”, public bodies should be focusing on how to make public information more accessible through use of the web. If more basic public information, like meeting minutes and contracts, were available online, citizens wouldn’t need to file as many FOIAs.

Unfortunately, we know this is not the end of the fight to protect FOIA. Without a doubt, lawmakers will continue to try chip away at FOIA.

The BGA remains committed to shining a light on government, and we will continue to fight for the public’s right to do the same.

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5 Comments

Filed under FOIA, Legislative Update, Transparency

5 responses to “Vexatious Outcome: New Illinois Law Hurts Freedom of Information Act

  1. Ron Friedman

    Can a FOIA requester be labeled a recurrent requester retroactively? If someone has FOIA’d an agency above that bogus standard BEFORE this Quinn-signed fiasco took effect, will that agency now be able to label the person “recurrent” even if the person now adheres to within the recurrent requester levels?

  2. Ron– good question. We’ll look into it.

  3. We have experienced reckless disregard of FOIA law from multiple local and state government entities. And, even though we are a media organization, we have seen entities attempt to label us as a “recurrent requester.”

    We believe Gov. Quinn should be ashamed for signing any law that reduces transparency in government, but we also believe that the bill sponsors and those who voted to take steps backward should be listed clearly and made famous so the public can know who is against their right to know government.

    We support any effort and urge the BGA to aggressively push this issue until FOIA laws are strengthened.

    • Thanks for being in touch. We are working hard to protect the Freedom of Information Act and the Open Meetings Act.
      Please check out the events section of our web page to see the ongoing community watchdog trainings we hold on FOIA and the OMA.
      http://www.bettergov.org

      Emily Miller
      Policy and Gov’t Affairs Coordinator

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