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04/20/89 Cheryl Bowie Et Al., v. Evanston Community

April 20, 1989

CHERYL BOWIE ET AL., APPELLEES

v.

EVANSTON COMMUNITY CONSOLIDATED SCHOOL DISTRICT NO. 65 ET AL., APPELLANTS



SUPREME COURT OF ILLINOIS

538 N.E.2d 557, 128 Ill. 2d 373, 131 Ill. Dec. 182 1989.IL.564

Appeal from the Appellate Court for the First District; heard in that court on appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County, the Hon. Harold A. Siegan, Judge, presiding.

APPELLATE Judges:

CHIEF JUSTICE MORAN delivered the opinion of the court. JUSTICE WARD took no part in the consideration or decision of this case. JUSTICE MILLER, Dissenting. JUSTICE RYAN joins in this Dissent.

DECISION OF THE COURT DELIVERED BY THE HONORABLE JUDGE MORAN

Plaintiffs, Cheryl Bowie, James Roberts and Vanessa Gray, filed suit for declaratory judgment and injunctive relief in the circuit court of Cook County against defendants, Evanston Community Consolidated School District No. 65 (district) and Eugene Mulcahy, the district superintendent (superintendent), pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1985, ch. 116, par. 201 et seq.).

Plaintiffs, parents of students attending the district's schools, sought the disclosure of standardized California Achievement Test (test) scores for students from certain years, grades and schools within the district and a list of education programs available in those schools. The trial court granted defendants' motion to dismiss the complaint pursuant to section 2-619(a)(9) of the Code of Civil Procedure (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1985, ch. 110, par. 2-619(a)(9)). Plaintiffs appealed and the appellate court reversed and remanded, finding that the district had a "duty to mask [ i.e., delete] all information other than that requested which would allow the identification of the students." (168 Ill. App. 3d 101, 107.) This court allowed defendants' petition for leave to appeal under Rule 315 (107 Ill. 2d R. 315).

The issue to be determined is whether masked and scrambled test score records, which do not identify individual students, are subject to disclosure under the FOIA.

On February 21, 1986, plaintiffs submitted a FOIA request to the district. Plaintiffs sought test score information of students from 1982 through 1986 school years for second, third and fifth grade students in eight elementary schools, for sixth and eighth grade students in three middle schools, and for second, third, fifth, sixth and eighth grade students in an experimental school. The test scores were requested for 11 testing categories (e.g., reading, spelling, language, mathematics, etc.) and were to designate the race of the students tested. The names or sex of the students were not requested. A list of the educational programs available at the schools was also requested.

Then-superintendent Dr. Robert Campbell denied the request on March 4, 1986, asserting the privacy protections of the FOIA and the Illinois School Student Records Act (Act) (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1985, ch. 122, par. 50-1 et seq.). Plaintiffs appealed this denial to Dr. Mulcahy, the new superintendent of schools. The superintendent denied the appeal on July 3, 1986. The superintendent later met with plaintiffs and their attorney and said he would try to release the test scores by school and race. However, the superintendent did not disclose the information despite further requests by the plaintiffs.

Plaintiffs filed their complaint in the circuit court of Cook County on August 22, 1986. On September 22, 1986, the district released to the public a 46-page report summarizing the 1985-86 students' performance on the test by school, grade and race, but not the individual scores of the students. The district then filed a motion to dismiss the complaint arguing that the test scores requested in the complaint were exempt from disclosure under sections 7(a) and (b) of the FOIA (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1985, ch. 116, par. 207(a)(b)), and that even if the requested data were masked and scrambled, disclosure was prohibited under the Act, which, in part, protects the privacy rights of students. Ill. Rev. Stat. 1985, ch. 122, par. 50-1 et seq.

The trial court granted defendants' motion to dismiss, relying on two grounds: (1) production of the test scores would violate the students' privacy rights, and (2) the district's release of the September 22, 1986, status report supplied plaintiffs with "sufficient information" to satisfy their FOIA request. On appeal, the appellate court reversed.

The district asserts two reasons why it should not be required to produce the requested information in a masked and scrambled format: the information is exempt from disclosure under the Act, as well as the FOIA, and to produce the information would require it to "create a new, non-exempt record from an otherwise exempt record." The district also contends that, should we affirm the decision of the appellate court, the case should be remanded to the trial court for a determination of whether compliance with the plaintiffs' request would be "unduly burdensome." Plaintiffs argue that the appellate court did not err in holding that neither the Act nor the FOIA prohibits the disclosure of the test score information in a masked and scrambled format. Plaintiffs also assert that the release of the information would not result in the creation of a new record and compliance by the district would not be "unduly burdensome."

The purpose of the FOIA is to open governmental records to the light of public scrutiny. (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1985, ch. 116, par. 201 et seq. ; see also, e.g., Family Life League v. Department of Public Aid (1986), 112 Ill. 2d 449 (interpreting the Illinois State Records Act).) Freedom of information fosters governmental accountability and an informed citizenry.

The public policy of this State encourages a free flow and disclosure of information between government and the people. The FOIA is to be given a liberal construction to achieve this goal. (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1985, ch. 116, par. 201.) There is a presumption that public records are open and accessible. (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1985, ch. 116, par. 211(e).) The flow of information, however, is not left unchanneled. Among other concerns, the court must be vigilant against invasions of privacy and interfering with the functions of government by imposing ...


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