February 17, 2011

Institute creates online guide to Illinois' FOIA

by Pete Rosenbery

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- A guide to Illinois’ Freedom of Information Act is now available online from the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

Recent changes to the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, make it important that not just working journalists, but public officials and also citizens have a primer on current provisions in FOIA and the state’s Open Meetings Act, said David Yepsen, Institute director.

The guide is an “advocacy tool that will hopefully help people with the law,” Yepsen said.

“We need to make sure that citizens are empowered to use it,” Yepsen said. “Some of this can be a little intimidating.”

The 29-page “Citizens Guide to Using the Freedom of Information Act,” is available for download from the Institute’s website, http://paulsimoninstitute.org/. Written by former veteran Illinois political reporter Adriana Colindres, now a public relations specialist for Knox College in Galesburg, the Institute received input from Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s office, William Freivogel, director of SIUC’s School of Journalism, and Josh Sharp, director of government relations for the Illinois Press Association in preparing the guide.

Yepsen said Institute founder and former U.S. Sen. Paul Simon, who also was a former journalist, was an advocate of open government and Yepsen believes Simon would approve of the guide.

“The Institute stands for good, ethical behavior in government,” Yepsen said. “Open government is a part of that. This is something we can do to provide a public service.”

Yepsen came to SIUC in April 2009 just as the Illinois General Assembly and Gov. Pat Quinn put finishing touches on an update of the state’s FOIA, which “addresses citizens’ access to public records created, compiled or kept by governmental bodies.”

The guide discusses revisions that took effect Jan. 1, 2010, and includes chapters on entities covered by FOIA, public records that fall within FOIA guidelines, and how to request public records. Yepsen notes that citizens and not journalists file most FOIA requests.

“This will help them decide how to go about it,” he said. “It will help them know whether in fact they can obtain records and where to go for more information.”

The guide also includes explanations of exemptions to obtaining records and documents, recourses if a FOIA request is denied, potential costs, and a sample FOIA request form. The guide discusses the state’s Open Meetings Act, entities covered by open meetings laws, and mechanisms for challenging whether a meeting should be closed to the public.

Yepsen emphasizes the guide should not be considered a substitute for advice from an attorney.

The guide is available in full color and black and white. For more information, contact the Institute at 618/453-4009 or visit http://paulsimoninstitute.org/.