As we debate the right of football players to speak freely, we also should keep in mind the right of all citizens to challenge government and gain access to public information.
In Illinois and other states recently, there have been far too many examples of public officials lashing out at the people they are supposed to serve and represent.
In Aurora, Police Chief Kristen Ziman recently took to Facebook and Twitter to attack a Beacon-News reporter for having the nerve to seek public records after a man ended up dead following a traffic stop and chase with one of her police officers. The reporter wanted dashcam video and records related to the victim. Ziman’s department denied the request, so the reporter appealed to the state attorney general’s office, which ruled in a non-binding opinion that the city should release the information.
Rather than simply release the information, the chief took to social media to complain about the reporter for seeking public information too often, for wasting her department’s time and for not always producing stories based on the information requested.
As the Beacon-News editorial board wrote: “You can’t tell if information is worth writing a story about until you see the information. Crazy, right? We treasure the input, chief, but you don’t get to decide what is a news story.”
Crazy, indeed. Sometimes when watchdog journalists seek information, a story doesn’t result. Sometimes when plain old citizens seek information, it might simply be because they want questions answered or to check whether their government truly is serving.
That’s just the way it goes, and ought to, in a free and democratic society.
Public servants work for the public, not the other way around.
That’s why it was alarming this summer when Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle briefly sought, in court, $17 million from a retail group that filed suit against the county in an attempt to have Preckwinkle’s soda tax overturned. A judge blocked the imposition of the tax for a month and, for a brief time, Preckwinkle actually went after the retail group to attempt to get them to make up for the month’s worth of lost tax revenue.
We could learn this week whether constituent pressure on county board members will be enough to prompt a repeal of the tax. That’s how democracy in action works. Citizens get to seek information and redress from the government.
Or that’s the way it should work. A recent Associated Press story, however, recounted an increasing number of cases of government officials suing citizens who filed Freedom of Information Act requests.
The suits ask courts to rule that the records don’t have to be provided and name those seeking the information as defendants. Not only does that action intimidate, it costs those seeking information time and money as they frequently end up needing to hire lawyers.
- A retired Louisiana teacher was sued when he sought school district enrollment data.
- Michigan State University sued ESPN after it sought police reports related to a sex assault investigation involving a football player.
- A Portland, Oregon, school district sued a parent who wanted records about workers on leave after it was disclosed a school psychologist had been on leave for three years.
- The University of Kentucky won its suit blocking release to a newspaper records related to a professor accused of sexually assaulting students.
- Western Kentucky University filed a similar suit against reporters looking for documents related to sex assault claims against university workers. That suit was filed despite the fact that other state universities released similar documents and the state attorney general ruled the records the paper sought are public.
At the Better Government Association, we’re confident similar government-generated lawsuits would go up in flames under Illinois law. We hope no public official tests us.
Still, the fact that this many government officials, inside and out of Illinois, are going after citizens in a blatant attempt to punish, intimidate or withhold information from them ought to frighten and anger us all. It only strengthens our resolve to protect the Freedom of Information Act and to continue to file suits against officials who deny our document requests whenever necessary.
After all, as Abraham Lincoln once said, “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Madeleine Doubek is policy and civic engagement director of the Better Government Association.
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