The fourth president of the United States, James Madison once wrote:
A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.
Last month, we wrote about how the state of Illinois was erecting barriers to such knowledge by passing House Bill 1716. Sponsored by both House and Senate representatives, HB 1716 is an amendment bill to the Illinois Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) which will require people who request information to pay for the actual cost of retrieving public records.
Several watchdog groups, including For the Good of Illinois , are concerned that the bill labels citizens who request information more than 50 times a year as “recurrent requestors”. This label jeopardizes their chances of actually getting the information they request, because once someone has been labeled, the government may delay fulfilling the request for up to one year!
The Citizen Advocacy Center (CAC), another vocal transparency organization in Illinois, has rallied Illinoisans asked Governor Quinn to reject HB 1716. Last week, the group met with the Governor’s legislative staff last week to express their concern about the bill. CAC has a history of fighting for the freedom of popular information: in 2009, CAC worked with the Attorney General’s Office to reform Illinois' FOIA -- turning it from one of the country’s worst FOI laws into one of the strongest.
CAC is joined in the struggle against HB 1716 by the Better Government Association, which created a take action platform calling on citizens to tell the Governor to stop the FOIA roll back bill.
The organization’s president and CEO, Andy Shaw, also wrote an open letter to the Governor that was published in the Chicago Sun Times -- reminding the Governor of his vow to keep Illinois “more transparent, accountable and accessible to the people”.
Proponents of HB 1716, including the state’s Attorney General Lisa Madigan, praise it for having a provision that lifts the pre-authorization requirement. At the moment, this requirement is needed for agencies to deny requests. But transparency supporters fear that the bill will greatly affect freelance journalists and watchdog groups by delaying their FOIA requests (especially if they are identified as “recurrent requestors”).
According to Maryam Judar of CAC, the Governor has until August 26th to either veto, amendatorily veto, or sign the bill. As we wait to hear the fate of Illinois’ FOIA, we continue to emphasize the importance of having an open and transparent state government. Our Open Letter call tool is available to help not only Illinoisans but all citizens to demand greater respect for transparency laws from their governors. By doing so, we become our own governors by arming ourselves with the power that knowledge provides -- just as Madison envisioned.