- The Illinois Attorney General (AG) issued a binding opinion under the state's Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), holding that residents' names are not exempt as "private information" under FOIA.
- The AG did not address how its opinion empowers requesters to use FOIA to find out an individual's home address, and the privacy and safety implications that its opinion may create.
- In light of the AG's opinion, public bodies should expect to receive more FOIA requests that specifically request the names of their residents.
Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan on Feb. 14, 2018, issued a binding opinion (Public Access Opinion 18-002) under the state's Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) that public bodies cannot withhold the names of their residents under Section 7(1)(b) of FOIA.
The Troy Community Consolidated School District 30C submitted a FOIA request to the city of Joliet seeking a copy of a water bill for a specific address. The city provided the water bill, but redacted the customer's name from the bill pursuant to Section 7(1)(b) of FOIA, claiming that the customer's name constituted "private information." The requester challenged the city's redactions to the Attorney General (AG).
Section 7(1)(b) of FOIA permits public bodies to withhold "private information," which is defined in FOIA as:
"[U]nique identifiers, including a person's social security number, driver's license number, employee identification number, biometric identifiers, personal financial information, passwords or other access codes, medical records, home or personal telephone numbers, and personal email addresses. Private information also includes home address and personal license plates, except as otherwise provided by law or when compiled without possibility of attribution to any person."
The city contended that a customer's name was "personal financial information, as well as an individual's home address." The city appeared to have argued that pairing a customer's name with a particular address results in the disclosure of a resident's personal address, and that FOIA expressly allows withholding of a home address.
Indeed, the city's practice of redacting residents' names to prevent the disclosure of residents' home addresses has long been a common practice by several governments throughout Illinois to prevent what many have seen as an unintended loophole in FOIA. Prior to the issuance of this opinion, many public bodies have taken the position that because FOIA does not require public bodies to disclose home addresses, public bodies must be able to redact a homeowner's name when a FOIA requester asks for records related to a specific address; otherwise the public body will be confirming a resident's home address, thereby undercutting the privacy interest that Section 7(1)(b) was intended to protect.
The AG rejected the city's arguments and determined that names of residents do not constitute "private information" and cannot be redacted under Section 7(1)(b), because the General Assembly would have specifically included names in its definition of "private information" had it intended for this information to be exempt. The AG did not address how its opinion empowers requesters to use FOIA to find out an individual's home address, and the privacy and safety implications that its opinion may create.
It is important to note that the AG's opinion only addresses the ability of public bodies to withhold names under Section 7(1)(b) of FOIA. Public bodies still may withhold names if other FOIA exemptions apply.
Joliet does not plan to appeal the AG opinion. Therefore, public bodies should review their practices. In addition, public bodies should be prepared to receive an influx of commercial FOIA requests asking for billing information and other records that include the names of residents so commercial requesters can use this information for marketing purposes.