Tennessee Public Records Aren’t Very Public

The Tennessean is reporting on the growing complexity of public records law in Tennessee and the increasing difficulty involved in obtaining public records in that state.

Tennessee opened government records to the general public in 1957, but lawmakers and judges have taken steps over the last 50 years to close many of those records.

There are currently more than 250 exemptions to the Tennessee Public Records Act on the books.

Proponents of public records argue it should not be easy to close public records in Tennessee. They believe that the exemptions are broadly written, which enables needless government secrecy.

There is even a bill moving through the Tennessee state legislature that would close public records that identify citizens licensed to carry handguns.

The executive director for the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, Frank Gibson, says, “any special interest who has a friend in the legislature can get records closed fairly easily.”

According to Charles Davis, executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition, Tennessee, compared with other states, falls in the middle in terms of the way it closes public records.

Davis points out that Florida has nearly 1,000 closed records. Although the number seems high, Davis claims that Florida should serve as a model for other states, because each exemption is extremely narrow and specifies the exact part of the record that is being closed from public access. Specific criteria must be met in order for a public record in Florida to be closed.

In comparison, Tennessee public records can be entirely closed when only a small piece of information should be kept secret.

Public records laws differ from state to state, however, it is generally accepted that secret information such as a person’s financial records or medical records should be off limits to the public.

In addition, information on national security or trade secrets are considered closed records. It’s also generally understood that law enforcement professionals need to keep investigations secret while the case is open.

However, some public records exemptions aren’t easy to excuse.

In Tennessee, morbidity and mortality records on nursing home residents is kept confidential.

Gibson says that educating the public on the importance of open records is one of the biggest challenges to changing public records laws.

“The problem is, citizens do not seem too concerned until it is an issue that involves them,” says Gibson. “If it’s emotional enough, like the gun issue, you’re able to argue, ‘Hey, there’s states giving gun permits to convicted felons — are you sure you want to close this?”

Source: The Tennessean