Keeping public records open in Tennessee

Johnson City Press • Nov 1, 2017 at 12:00 AM

The Tennessee Press Association, acting on behalf of this and 124 other member newspapers in this state, has sent a letter to the Tennessee Office of Open Records Counsel asking the state’s guidelines for inspecting public records be amended to prevent governmental bodies from banning “carte blanche” the photographing of public records by cell phone cameras.

We are living in the digital age, and we believe it’s time for state and local custodians of public records to catch up with the technology of the 21st century.

Some government entities have adopted a policy that says a person requesting to see a public document “will not be allowed to make copies of records with personal equipment.”

TPA officials say this language has led to bans on Tennesseans, including journalists who are reporting on news stories, from taking pictures of public records with their cell phones. Such policy also runs afoul of the Tennessee’s Open Records Act.

The public records law was passed in 1957 and requires government officials to grant full access to public records to every citizen of this state. The measure directs the courts to construe the act broadly “so as to give the fullest possible access to public records.”

While the courts have said public officials can charge reasonable fees for copying public records, local governments can’t charge fees for allowing inspection of a public record.

In truth, examining public records under the current law is not as easy as it should be. Tennessee’s public records law ranks 44th in the nation because aggrieved citizens are sometimes forced to engage in costly litigation to inspect public records and documents.

These open records belong to all the people of this state. Banning a citizen from snapping a cell phone photo of a public document is not in keeping with Tennessee law.

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