Public record bills target 'harassing' requesters, 911 calls and more

Zach Vance • Feb 11, 2019 at 7:11 PM

Almost a dozen bills have been introduced during the 111th Tennessee General Assembly that, if passed, would affect the public’s ability to access certain government records. 

Some of the legislative proposals would conceal records currently open to the public’s purview, such as names on traffic accident reports, while others expand the Tennessee Open Records Act to include information currently concealed by law. 

The following is a brief explanation of five bills relating to public records: 

HB0626/SB0590: Introduced by House Majority Leader Rep. William Lambert, R-Cottontown, this bill would penalize Tennesseans who use public records requests as a form of “harassment.” 

Harassment, under Lambert’s proposal, would be defined as making three or more public record requests within one year where:

• The requests were made in a manner that causes a reasonable person to be seriously abused, intimidated, threatened or harassed

• The conduct of the person making the request was either abusive or intimidating.

• The requests were not made in “good faith or for any legitimate purpose.”

If a request is deemed “harassment,” the records custodian can petition a court to prevent the person from making record requests for one year. The court could also require the requester pay for all court costs and fees, as well as the costs associated with producing the public records.

According to the Associated Press, Lambert filed this bill in response to the city of Gallatin receiving 130 public records requests in one year from a citizen.

HB1107/SB1346: This bill would conceal information about people involved in traffic accidents from police reports.

Sponsored by Rep. Jason Powell, D-Nashville, this bill would make personally identifying information of a driver, owner or passenger of a motor vehicle involved in a wreck confidential.

The bill defines personal information as names, addresses, dates of birth, telephone numbers, driver’s license numbers and insurance information. Some of that information, like a person’s driver’s license number and insurance information, is already confidential.

HB0335/SB0386: This proposal, led by Rep. Rick Tillis, R-Lewisburg, would narrow the Tennessee Open Records Act to conceal 911 calls, transmissions and recordings of emergency communications from being a public record. However, Tillis’ bill would allow a 911 call to be released with the written consent of the caller involved.

In other states, recordings of 911 calls are open as a public record, although sometimes the calls can be withheld under certain exemptions, such as a law enforcement “investigatory” exemption, according to the Reports Committee for Freedom of the Press’ Open Government Guide.

HB1265/SB0513: This bill, supported by the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, would remove an exemption that conceals the names of businesses receiving tax credits for economic development, how much those credits are and whether those businesses are fulfilling the agreed-upon terms with the state. According to the Tennessean, the state awards $218 million a year in tax credits to encourage business relocation or expansion. However, the state has accumulated nearly $1.3 billion in unclaimed business credits.

A similar bill, HB0370, would prohibit government payments, fees and other forms of financial benefits paid to private entities from being considered a “confidential trade secret” or “proprietary information” under the Open Records Act, unless the transaction falls under a specific state or federal exception.

HB0086/SB0167While the language of this bill is not yet finalized, Rep. Jason Zachary, R-Knoxville, intends to set up a review process for all of Tennessee’s 560-plus public record exemptions, which can be cited to keep certain records confidential, according to Tennessee Coalition for Open Government Executive Director Deborah Fisher.

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