October 12, 2017
In 2015 I filed a Freedom of Information Act request with Chicago Public Schools seeking documentation that would bring to light how the internationally-acclaimed graphic novel “Persepolis” by Marjane Satrapi came to be banned from CPS in March 2013. I sought any information that would help me understand the reasoning behind the ban, as well as the internal decision-making process that led to such a shocking decision. In response to my request, I received 46 pages of emails that revealed not only why the decision was made, but showed Barbara Byrd-Bennett, then-CEO of CPS, was directly involved in the censorship process from the start, which she had strongly denied.
This research, which has contributed to intellectual freedom scholarship, provided another clear example of the importance of professional school librarians in book challenge situations as, through interviews I conducted, it became clear CPS librarians were instrumental in protecting the freedom to read library copies of the book. Moreover, it has served as an indication that a functional FOIA process is crucial to securing intellectual freedom.
Eight months after I filed my FOIA, journalist Brendan Smith sued the Chicago Police Department when it refused to fulfill his request for the video showing Chicago police fatally shooting teenager Laquan McDonald 16 times. When Smith won that lawsuit and the video was released to the public, it shined a worldwide spotlight on the brutality of CPD. The video remains of enormous value to a public that demands a stop to police shootings and meaningful police reform across the nation.
Smith had to sue the city to get the information he requested, I didn’t. Regardless, our experiences prove that FOIA requests, when the process works, are of significant value to the voting public and are integral to American democracy.
Now Evanston’s elected officials are, alarmingly, considering the removal of FOIA officer responsibilities from city clerk Devon Reid and handing this job to either city manager Wally Bobkiewicz or staff within the Evanston Police Department. Unlike Bobkiewicz or anyone employed inside EPD, Reid is an elected official. He won an overwhelming majority of votes on a government transparency platform and has promised to not only preserve, but strengthen, the integrity of the FOIA process in Evanston.
City Council’s purported reasoning behind removing Reid’s FOIA officer responsibilities is that he’s been far too open in the job. He mistakenly revealed the names of two individuals — one a minor who was a recent victim of over-policing, the other a sexual assault survivor — in FOIA documents he released publicly. Reid’s reasoning behind releasing the minor’s name is defensible: The boy’s father had already given public testimony about his son whose arrest received press attention, so the identity was known. But, I agree that the release of the sexual assault survivor’s identity was a grave blunder. City Council is right to pressure Reid for this oversight.
Its response, however, should not be to potentially damage government transparency, make acquiring public documents a less open process and hurt public trust. By stripping Reid of his duties as FOIA officer, our City Council would place the process behind a veil. How can we trust that Bobkiewicz — someone beholden only to City Council — will faithfully provide all internal documentation relating to, say, council decisions? How can we trust that EPD staff would willingly provide information about police brutality occurring on our streets? This move would serve City Council, our mayor and our police first — the public, a far second.
The city’s Rules Committee will determine Reid’s future as Evanston’s FOIA officer Monday at 6 p.m. at the Lorraine H. Morton Civic Center. This meeting is open to the public. Will our city’s elected officials overstep their bounds and damage our trust by requisitioning a job we elected Reid to do, or will they commit to government transparency by protecting the integrity of the FOIA process?
I urge my fellow Evanston residents to write or call Mayor Steve Hagerty and their aldermen and attend Monday’s Rules Committee meeting to demand FOIA officer duties are left squarely in Reid’s hands.
Young Adult Librarian at Skokie Public Library