Illinois Supreme Court rules high school association not subject to open records laws

The Illinois Supreme Court upheld lower courts’ rulings that a non-profit school athletic organization is not subject to Freedom of Information Act requests.

The Illinois High School Association coordinates postseason sporting events for private and public high schools in Illinois.

Justice Mary Jane Theis wrote in the court’s unanimous opinion that the IHSA did not meet the threshold of a public body or a subsidiary of a public body, and was not required to fulfill the governmental duty of releasing records.

To prove that the IHSA is subject to public-records requests, the justices ruled, a requester must show that the IHSA belongs to or is controlled by a public body, such as one of the public schools or the school districts.

In their decision Thursday, the court found the relationship between the nonprofit and the schools to be elective, and not required to fulfill a government function.

The Better Government Association, a nonprofit watchdog group, was seeking records of IHSA’s contracts and vendor applications, particularly any with Home Team Marketing, Streigel Knobloch & Co., Nike, Gatorade, and Country Financial.

To succeed in having the records made public, the opinion said, BGA needed to prove that there was, “a sufficiently close nexus between the state and the private conduct so that the action may be fairly attributable to the state.”

Because IHSA had direction independent of the schools and districts, and because the records themselves did not constitute “public records,” the court upheld the ruling.

Matt Topic, the attorney representing BGA, told Peoria Public Radio that while the result was disappointing, it could help another BGA case to receive records from an organization that manages Chicago’s Navy Pier.

Principals from Illinois public and private schools are elected to serve on the volunteer board of directors, though schools are not required to join the association.

In addition, the elected principal remains a board member even if they switch schools.

The organization is funded by proceeds from the sporting events it hosts and sponsorships. It does not require any member schools or districts to pay dues or membership fees.

In 2004, Kentucky Attorney General James Ringo ruled that a similar school sports organization, the Kentucky High School Athletics Association, was a public body subject to open records law when a resident requested records of correspondence with high school athletics directors about tournament seeding.

“Although the KHSAA was originally created as a private, voluntary, unincorporated association, it assumed a public character as a policy making board” when it began managing interscholastic athletics in state schools, Ringo wrote.

Athletic associations in South Dakota and Pennsylvania became classified as public bodies after the state legislatures passed laws acknowledging that the groups performed duties that were generally left to school boards.

The South Dakota High School Activities Association, however, was created by state statute and received state funding. It also at one time accepted dues from member schools before incorporating more corporate sponsorship.