A new ruling by Illinois' Attorney General means some public employees’ private emails and texts could be retrievable upon request.
Attorney General Lisa Madigan has issued a binding decision that the personal email accounts of many types of public employees are subject to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests if those emails contain public business. The opinion stems from a CNN request to the Chicago Police Department to turn over any personal emails that officers may have made regarding the Laquan McDonald shooting.
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Holland & Knight Senior Counsel Mark Burkland said the ruling will have a ripple effect on municipalities across Illinois. "Sometimes the easiest thing to do is to pull out a smartphone to text a colleague for a public works project or something similar," he said. "If a water main breaks at 2 a.m., is the public works director not supposed to use their personal device to call or to text someone to get out and fix it?" he asked.
The attorney representing CNN argued that granting public employees’ private emails immunity from FOIA requests would undermine current disclosure laws, since it would incentivize them to use those accounts to hide sensitive information.
The rule doesn't apply to elected officials and their private accounts.
Burklund said public bodies should make rules to establish a way to get to their employees' private accounts should they need to.
It is uncertain if the City of Chicago plans to appeal the decision.