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Seventh Circuit: U.of Illinois FOIA Case a State Court Issue

By Robyn Hagan Cain on May 25, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The Chicago Tribune published an exposé series in 2009 called “Clout Goes to College.” In those articles, the Tribune reported that the University of Illinois had a special process for reviewing the applications of persons with well-placed supporters. Many applicants considered through this process were admitted even though they would not have been under the University’s normal criteria.

The story, however, is incomplete. The Tribune still wants more information about the students who received preferential treatment. Thursday, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Tribune has to ask for the information in an Illinois state court.

The Tribune sought the additional information through the Illinois Freedom of Information Act. The University is covered by this statute and therefore must make requested documents available, unless an exemption applies.

Here, the University invoked an exemption which provides that agencies will withhold "information specifically prohibited from disclosure by federal or state law or rules and regulations implementing federal or State law." The University claimed the disclosure would violate a Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) provision that threatens to withhold funds from schools that permit the release of a student's personally identifiable information without written consent.

The University asserted that even though the Tribune sought the identities of applicants' parents rather than students, identifying parents necessarily would disclose "education records" or "personally identifiable information" about many students. The Tribune responded by asking a federal district court for a declaratory judgment that the University misunderstands FERPA.

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on Thursday that the Tribune should have turned to the state courts, not the federal courts. The court concluded, "The Tribune is the natural plaintiff and cannot use 28 U.S.C. §2201, the declaratory-judgment statute, to have a federal court blot out a potential federal defense to its own potential state-law suit."

The court noted that the FERPA interpretation is a question of federal law, but it can't be resolved without first analyzing the applicable Illinois FOIA exemption. The Illinois FOIA exemption is a question of Illinois state law for an Illinois state court.

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