Black bars with the word For the Record underlined

For the Record: Appealing an unduly burdensome denial in Illinois

After the Cicero Independiente and MuckRock published the “Air We Breathe,” a series of investigative articles about air pollution and the chemicals company Koppers, the company hired a public-relations firm to organize a secret, behind-the-scenes campaign to influence local officials.

The secret meeting was called a “Community Advisory Panel” by the company, but the public was left out. The company didn’t notify the nearly 150,000 residents of Stickney, Cicero and Berwyn, nor any representative of a news organization, major community organization or state legislator’s office. Reporters at the Independiente and MuckRock only uncovered the meeting’s existence by combing through public records, filing multiple Illinois Freedom of Information Act requests and appealing a denial of a request for emails and correspondence among local officials.

One of our requests was originally denied by the Village of Stickney, citing an exemption from the Illinois Freedom of Information Act that the request would be “unduly burdensome.” In Illinois, there are over 25 categories of exemptions, which are highly detailed and expansive.

MuckRock appealed this request by referring back to key parts of the exemption the Village of Stickney cited that demonstrated how the village actually hadn’t followed the law before rejecting the request. The exemption clarifies that before a request can be deemed “unduly burdensome,” the agency must first reach out to the requester to discuss ways to narrow the request beforehand.

In its appeal, MuckRock explained to the Illinois Attorney General’s Public Access Counselor how it had asked the village for estimates on the number of responsive records and how the request could be narrowed, but the village didn’t respond..

The newsrooms eventually unmasked the company’s secret meeting, which was described in emails and attachments between the Village of Stickney and the public relations firm.

Get help overcoming your own rejections

Requesters may face a similar denial of their public records requests, but there are ways to appeal. MuckRock provides guides and resources on how to manage their own appeal, including understanding the lifecycle of an appeal, crafting an effective appeal and handling a constructive denial.

To learn more about how to appeal your FOIA requests, check out MuckRock’s #FOIAFriday webinar on appeals on YouTube and join us for our next webinar on May 10 to dig into FOIA, appeals and any other questions. We also have a range of resources on requesting and appealing in our FOIA 101 project and in our state guides.

You can also get real-time help, and share your FOIA victories, in our FOIA Slack.

The Update

  • First Amendment lawsuit could change jail’s policies: Allegheny County will now revise its policies for the Bureau of Corrections after settling a First Amendment lawsuit with journalist Brittany Hailer. Hailer, with free legal support from attorneys at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the Yale Law School Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic, argued that its policies violated the First Amendment, effectively silenced jail employees and hampered important investigative reporting about issues at the Allegheny County Jail.

  • Student journalists share their favorite FOIA redactions: The State News, the student newspaper of Michigan State University, files hundreds of requests with the university’s Freedom of Information Act Office each academic year. Alex Walters and Theo Scheer share their funniest redactions of the year.

  • Review of Tennessee’s legislative session: The Tennessee Coalition for Open Government shared their review of the state’s 2024 legislative session, including a new bill that will allow someone who prevails in an open meetings lawsuit to collect attorney fees if the court finds that the governing body was willful in its actions.

FOIA Finds

  • Live from New York, it’s FCC complaints: Brooke Germain, editor at The Nevada Sagebrush, used MuckRock to request complaints filed to the Federal Communications Commission about Saturday Night Live in 2023, reports Jennifer M. Wood in the Late Nighter. The complaints are available on MuckRock.

  • Documents on Portland’s drone program now public: Journalist Kate Kaye at RedTail obtained documents from the Portland Police Bureau for her investigation into the bureau’s drone program. Kaye has now made those documents available for the public on DocumentCloud.

  • Guests invited to Maryland governor’s suites: Through public records requests, Baltimore Sun reporter Sam Janesch obtained a list of guests invited to Maryland Gov. Wes Moore’s suites in the Orioles and Ravens stadiums. The list included former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Baltimore developer David Bramble and leaders of powerful teachers’ unions.

Correction: This column has been updated to reflect that the existence of the meeting was originally noted in public meeting minutes for the village of Stickney, not through the appeal for email correspondence.