Illinois Appellate Court Rules that Raw Database Data Is a Public Record under FOIA

In Hites v. Waubonsee Community College, the Waubonsee Community College received a Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) request for certain data that was stored on the college’s electronic database.  The request sought “raw input” for specific fields on student registration forms for particular years, such as zip codes for all students taking a certain class in 2011, and information from the city, county code, and citizenship fields for all students registered in 2011.  The FOIA requester also asked for total numbers of registered students in certain years, as well as the total number of registered students that took a particular course for a range of years.

Waubonsee denied the request arguing that the requests were not subject to FOIA because (1) the information from the specific input fields (such as zip codes) were individual data points in a database and did not constitute public records or (2) the information requested was for tallies or aggregates of data instead of existing public records.

The court held against the college finding that the raw input data from the college’s database was a public record and had to be produced, even if it meant the public body had to write some simple code to extract the specific information requested from the database, because the information pertained to public business and was under Waubonsee’s control.  The court noted that although public bodies do not have a duty to generate new records in response to a FOIA request, they do have a general obligation to search and produce data stored in a database that is responsive to a FOIA request.

With regard to Waubonsee’s claim that the FOIA requests sought records for aggregate data that did not exist, the appellate court agreed that FOIA did not require Waubonsee to give information about the total number of students registered for certain classes and/or years if that information was not already existing.  The court found those requests improperly sought information about existing public records, rather than the records themselves.

This case clarifies that public bodies have a duty under FOIA to conduct reasonable searches of both paper records and raw data from electronic databases, and in certain cases, they may have a duty to write basic code to conduct the search.

Contact Bob Kohn or Debra Jacobson with your FOIA inquiries.

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