On July 18, the Public Access Counselor (PAC) of the Illinois Attorney General’s Office issued a 14-page decision which held that School District 202 “improperly withheld certain records responsive” to Stan Zoller’s Oct. 18, 2017 and Nov. 20, 2017 requests for information under the Freedom of Information Act. Conversely, the PAC upheld District 202’s claims that certain documents were exempt from disclosure.

Mr. Zoller is an independent journalist, a member of the Chicago Headline Club Board of Directors and a member of the Citizen’s Advocacy Center’s Advisory Council.  He is a lecturer in journalism at Lake Forest College.

Mr. Zoller sought email exchanges relating to the confiscation of one issue of The Evanstonian, the student newspaper, in September 2017. The newspaper contained a two-page spread and six articles relating to drug use and drug dealing. In a press release dated Sept. 22, 2017, administrators said the articles glorified the usage of drugs.

One of the news editors of The Evanstonian said the paper covered the topic of marijuana usage because it is a “prominent and important aspect of student life and culture and needed to be covered in a large, public way,” and that reporters felt comfortable covering the topic because of “ETHS’s reputation as an inclusive community welcoming of free speech.”

An Executive Editor of the paper cited the Illinois Speech Rights of Student Journalists Act, which states that the administration may restrict student press only when content “incites students to commit an unlawful act, to violate policies of the school district, or to materially and substantially disrupt the orderly operation of the school.”

“None of these was violated,” the Executive Editor said.

Mr. Zoller also sought emails that School Board President Pat Savage-Williams referred to in a Nov. 13, 2017 School Board meeting and that were either sent or received by School Board member Jonathan Baum. The emails related to the confiscation of the Evanstonian, and to an unrelated issue, namely, charges of a sexual nature made against a former teacher at the school. Ms. Savage-Williams said Mr. Baum breached confidentiality by sending some of the emails. Mr. Baum vigorously disputed the allegation.

The PAC held that a number of e-mails were exempt from production under various sections of the FOIA. Because the documents have not been produced and have been deemed exempt from production, the descriptions of the documents are vague.

One of them is an e-mail between the Principal of ETHS and the Chief Human Relations Officer. The PAC said the e-mail reflects “predecisional and deliberative communications,” which are exempt from production under what is often called the deliberative process privilege.

The PAC held that an email from the Principal of ETHS to three District 202 employees, and copied to the Superintendent, was exempt from production under the attorney client privilege. The PAC said the e-mail “reflects a description of legal advice provided by the School District’s attorney and how the School District intended to act, based on the legal advice. To the extent that the e-mail contains facts, those ‘facts and the privileged information are too intertwined to make redaction possible.’”

The PAC said another e-mail containing “allegations of a sexual nature implicating a former teacher and describing the alleged harm suffered by a former student” were “highly personal and their disclosure would be objectionable to a reasonable person.” The PAC concluded that the “public interest in disclosure of certain portions of the record is outweighed by the privacy interests of the subjects of the e-mail.”

The PAC rejected many of District 202’s other claims of privilege and requested that the District produce nine e-mails. The PAC also requested that District 202 produce three other emails it agreed to produce, with redactions of private e-mail addresses.

Larry Gavin was a co-founder of the Evanston RoundTable in 1998 and assisted in its conversion to a non-profit in 2021. He has received many journalism awards for his articles on education, housing and...