Illinois Supreme Court to Decide If FOIA Requires Equal Treatment of Citizens and Media

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Our previews of the newest additions to the Illinois Supreme Court's docket continue with Garlick v. Madigan, a unpublished decision from Division One of the First District which poses this interesting question: is a government entity required to treat a private citizen and a media outlet the same for purposes of requests under the state Freedom of Information Act?

More than two years ago, the plaintiff in Garlick sent the defendant a FOIA request, asking for data relating to the operations of the Attorney General's Public Access Coordinator (PAC) - an official tasked with overseeing the rest of the state government's compliance with FOIA. The plaintiff's request said he wasn't interested in the names of the requesting parties, but did say that he wanted the information in a specific electronic format. The AG declined to generate the information in the requested format, but agreed to turn over an existing report.

A month later, the Chicago Tribune asked for data on the AG's PAC. In the Tribune's online story, the data was available for direct download. The data included the identities of the requesting parties - the information the plaintiff had said he wasn't interested in.

The plaintiff contacted the AG, asking for an explanation of the redactions. The Attorney General responded that in the case of the Trib, the office had concluded that the public interest outweighed the value of keeping the requestors' identities private.   The plaintiff then wrote the PAC, demanding the information again, with no redactions. The AG wrote back, stating that its earlier response hadn't violated the Act. The plaintiff filed another FOIA request, demanding all the AG's correspondence with the Trib. The information was turned over, and disclosed that the AG had worked with the Trib to provide the information in the paper's preferred format. So the plaintiff sued, seeking the unredacted information, civil penalties and costs. The trial court dismissed.

On appeal, the plaintiff raised four arguments. The Appellate Court rejected each one.

First, the plaintiff argued that the AG's failure to provide the information in the preferred format was itself a FOIA violation. The Appellate Court disagreed, holding that a public entity is entitled to provide information in the form in which it exists in the office's records. Next, the plaintiff argued that treating the Tribune differently violated FOIA, and that permitting less disclosure to a private actor harmed the public policy interests that animated FOIA. The Appellate Court disagreed, holding that the parties were not similarly situated for equal protection purposes, and that the treatment of the Trib was entirely irrelevant to the issue of whether or not the AG had violated FOIA in its interaction with the plaintiff. Finally, the Court rejected the plaintiff's argument that the AG's redactions from the record had violated FOIA, pointing out that the plaintiff had expressly stated in the request that he didn't care about redactions.

We expect Garlick to be decided in six to eight months.