Public records help keep our officials and elected representatives accountable, they help to keep the community safe by allowing them to look up criminal records and stay aware of other risks, and they also allow journalists access to information to bolster and support their work. In every state, the process for obtaining public records is different. The state of Illinois a strange beast indeed; on paper, the state is relatively open and the types of documents you are allowed to request span many, many different departmental and public agencies. That said, the state is also home to an unusual number of exemptions which allow for those whose information is requested to redact or refuse the release of certain information. Let’s take a look at what you can and can’t do in Illinois with regards to public records.
Public records in Illinois are stipulated under the Illinois state Freedom Of Information Act which you can read in its entirety at the Illinois General Assembly. The act outlines the type of documents and records which constitute publicly accessible information. As a basic rule of thumb, any public body is fair game, including all government agencies. That said, executive, legislative, and administrative governmental bodies and officials aren’t the only ones subject to public records requests. All state affiliated universities and colleges, along with towns, cities, counties, school districts, public bureaus, and any business associated with them are also part of the public record.
It is worth noting that when requesting public records there is no restriction based on media type. In general, audio and video records are emailed or prepared on a CD, while all written or photographic/visual records are reproduced either in PDF or paper format. For this reason, reproduction is cheap and you should never be charged excessively for it.
That said, public bodies have a number of exemptions they can claim that prevent requested documents from becoming part of the public record, or at least being released at a certain time. These include…
- records which another law or statute expressly exempts
- any information that might constitute a clear and unwarranted invasion of an individual’s privacy
- certain criminal records information which may be sealed or otherwise in active use
- any trade secrets that might be exposed in a public records request (this type of exemption is most common when working with government contractors or hired companies)
- communications between any entity and an attorney which constitutes attorney-client privilege
- any memos, drafts, or notes pertaining to the finances of the public body
- any records or documents related to real estate purchases while those purchases are actively not yet completed or terminated
- vulnerability assessments or other security related evaluations which may be compromised by becoming public knowledge
- insurance claims information
- dealings with public utilities companies, of which there is a specific public utilities act that can be cited
- identifying information for law enforcement or driver information from the Department of Transportation
- Department of Public Health records, especially those pertaining to sexually transmittable diseases
While these are some of the major exemptions, the list actually goes on a while longer. When requesting records in Illinois, it’s important to be patient and have realistic expectations; with so many exemption listings, it can sometimes be difficult to get a hold of the information you’re looking for in a timely manner.