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Sunshine Law needs a little clarification

Staff Report • Mar 18, 2013 at 8:50 AM

Throughout this week, we’ve stressed the importance of seeking more openness from our federal, state and local officials. Sunshine Week is a time to celebrate transparency — not only as a fundamental tool of citizenship, but as an essential ingredient for maintaining a free and open society.

One of those fundamental tools is the rights of citizens to inspect public documents. Every citizen has a right to obtain certain information under the state’s Public Records Act of 1957. These records are supposed to be open to the public — no questions asked.

Over the years, however, state officials have interpreted the law to mean that only Tennessee residents have the right to inspect those documents. Frank Gibson, public policy director for the Tennessee Press Association, recently told The Associated Press that while the law states records shall be open to “any citizen of Tennessee,” some government agencies interpret that language as a legitimate reason for denying requests from people outside the state.

“It is a frequently abused section of the law,” Gibson said.

He and other open-government advocates would like to see that section of the law clarified, and so would we.

Enforcement of Tennessee’s public records law often ranks among the lowest in the nation because aggrieved citizens are forced to engage in costly litigation to inspect public records and documents. This is where the Tennessee Office of Open Records Counsel helps people who encounter problems in accessing open records. Citizens who face these problems often lack the money or knowledge they need to push an open records claim in court. This ombudsman helps residents obtain the information they are guaranteed to see under state law.

The open records counsel’s office can be reached by calling 866-831-3750, or by email at open.records@state.tn.us.

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