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Edgar County Watchdogs vs. The Will County Sheriff’s Office

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  1. Freedom of Information

Court: Illinois Supreme Court

Date Filed: July 27, 2023

Background: In 2019, Edgar County Watchdogs, an Illinois news outlet, requested 911 call records from the Will County Sheriff’s Office. The sheriff’s office denied the request, claiming that the call records were exempt from disclosure under confidentiality provisions of the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.

Edgar County Watchdogs sued, alleging willful and intentional violations of the state’s public records law. The trial court found in favor of the news outlet, ruling that the sheriff’s office had to release recordings of the 911 calls using computer software to mask the callers’ voices or create a transcript of the calls.

The sheriff’s office appealed, arguing that altering the audio of a 911 recording constitutes the creation of a new record, which would not be subject to release under FOIA, and claiming it did not have access to computer software necessary to mask callers’ voices.

The appellate court reversed the trial court’s decision. In its ruling, the appellate court noted that 911 calls are not automatically exempt from disclosure and that deleting information from a record does not constitute creating a new record. However, it took at face value the sheriff’s office’s claim that it does not have the technology to disguise audio recordings. As a result, the appellate court concluded that the 911 calls in their original form are exempt from disclosure in the interest of protecting the callers’ identities.

Edgar County Watchdogs then filed a petition for leave to appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court.

Our Position: The Illinois Supreme Court should grant Edgar County Watchdogs’s petition for leave to appeal. It should also reverse the appellate court’s ruling that the 911 recordings in their only available form are exempt from disclosure and that the sheriff’s office need not create a transcript or alternate recording of the 911 calls.

  • Agencies’ implementation of the Illinois Freedom of Information Act must keep pace with evolving technology.
  • Free, user-friendly audio editing tools are readily available; a government agency cannot deny public access to audio files by claiming it lacks such technology.
  • Members of the news media rely on access to 911 call recordings to inform the public about matters of immense public concern.

Quote: “[G]overnment agencies are expected to leverage modern technology to maximize transparency, and nothing in the [Illinois Freedom of Information Act] permits an agency to deny access to whole categories of public records — like 911 recordings — simply because it refuses to utilize commonplace, readily obtainable technology that would enable it to fulfill FOIA’s mandate.”

Related: In 2022, the Reporters Committee filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in support of a journalist trying to obtain access to school bus surveillance camera footage. The brief disputed the school district’s argument that it could not disclose the video because it lacked the technology to blur the students’ faces. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ultimately rejected that argument and ordered the district to redact the surveillance footage before turning it over.

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