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Suspend the Freedom of Information Act? Even during a pandemic, that’s a horrible idea

No reporter wants saving lives to take a back seat to handing over public documents. But Gov. Pritzker was right to nix the idea of a blanket suspension of FOIA.

A newspaper stand in Chicago. News organizations in Illinois need unfettered Freedom of Information access, even during the coronavirus pandemic.
A newspaper stand in Chicago. News organizations in Illinois need unfettered Freedom of Information access, even during the coronavirus pandemic.
Ellicia Myles/Sun-Times file photo

It is never a good idea to restrict the public’s right to information.

Not even — or perhaps, especially — during this pandemic. At a time of crisis, the public depends even more on the media for accurate, timely information.

Many times, that information is obtained via the state’s Freedom of Information Act.

So we were glad to hear Thursday that the Illinois Municipal League and Mayor Lori Lightfoot lost their bid to suspend FOIA deadlines during the time Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s stay-at-home order is in effect.

There’s no reason in the world that government bodies and the media — and others who formally request public information — can’t continue to resolve FOIA disputes informally, as they have always done. It’s a matter for honest dialogue, not anti-democratic rule changes.

“We fully well understand what’s going on, that they have limitations on what they can do,” Illinois Press Association President Sam Fisher told us.

Pritzker shot down the Municipal League’s proposal Thursday, and good for him.

The League last week had asked Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul to suspend FOIA deadlines. Lightfoot on Wednesday threw her support behind the idea, saying that city employees risked being pulled away from fighting the coronavirus to fulfill FOIA requests.

Lightfoot ought to know better. No journalist or news organization that we know would expect life-saving work to take a back seat to handing over a stack of documents. And the public and the courts wouldn’t stand for it.

In FOIA guidelines issued Thursday, Raoul stated that he had no power to change FOIA policy. Only the governor or Legislature could do so. Pritzker then made it clear he wasn’t on board with suspending the deadline.

Negotiations on FOIA requests in Illinois have been the norm for years. The state’s FOIA statute allows for that. Pretty much every reporter who’s ever filed a FOIA request with a school district, village board or other government entity has had to engage in discussion about deadlines. Rarely is information provided within the initial five-day deadline.

No need to change the rules. Let’s just step up the dialogue.

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