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City Violated FOIA by Completely Withholding Police “Action Plan” Where Certain Content Was Not Exempt

In Lucy Parsons Labs v. City of Chicago Mayor’s Office, an Illinois appellate court found that when public records contain both exempt and nonexempt information under FOIA, a public body must release the portions that are not exempt and only redact or withhold content that is exempt pursuant to FOIA. In this case, the City of Chicago received a FOIA request for its action plan regarding the public response to the verdict in the highly publicized murder trial of former Chicago police officer, Jason Van Dyke. The city denied the request, citing to Section 7(1)(v) of FOIA, which exempts: “Vulnerability assessments, security measures, and response policies or plans that are designed to identify, prevent, or respond to potential attacks upon a community’s population or systems, facilities, or installations, the destruction or contamination of which would constitute a clear and present danger to the health or safety of the community. . .” The city argued that releasing the action plan could allow “terrorists and criminals to know in advance where police, fire, and other valuable city resources will be,” which would jeopardize public safety.

The requester sued the city, alleging that not “every single word on every page of the action plan” was exempt under 7(1)(v), and that the city was required to produce nonexempt contents of the action plan. Here, the court agreed with the city that the plan contained “core information” that was exempt under Section 7(1)(v), but also found that the city must disclose any information that would not “reasonably be expected to jeopardize the effectiveness of the measures or the safety of the personnel who implement them or the public.” The court emphasized that the mere “commingling” of exempt and nonexempt material does not prevent a public body from disclosing the nonexempt portion of the record.

This case serves as a reminder that a public body cannot completely withhold public records just because portions of the record may be exempt from release under FOIA. For each FOIA request, public bodies, including school districts, should carefully review requested records prior to release to determine if portions of those records should be released, released with redactions, or completely withheld. This is, just because a record may contain a large amount of exempt information does not mean that its complete contents are automatically exempt from release, even if the information left to release is not necessarily useful to the requester.