The Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association meets the standards of a “functional equivalent” of government and therefore is subject to the Tennessee Public Records Act, an appeals court in Nashville ruled today.
The decision means the organization, which was created in 1925 and has an annual budget of $5 million, must abide by the same rules as government agencies when it comes to access to its records.
The case arose in 2012 after TSSAA refused to give The City Paper records related to an investigation into tuition for athletes at Montgomery Bell Academy, arguing it was not subject to the state’s open records laws. Chancellor Claudia Bonnyman found that it was, and the appeals court, in an opinion written by Judge Frank G. Clement Jr., agreed.
The opinion lays out numerous examples of TSSAA’s intertwinement with government, including control by governing bodies made up mostly of public school officials. It also noted the trial court’s finding that a large portion of its revenue comes from gate receipts at tournament games in public arenas. If TSSAA hadn’t collected the money, “the local schools would be collecting the money and spending the money,” the trial court had said.
The opinion also found that the state Board of Education considered regulation of high school athletic activities as one its functions:
“However, the historical relationship between the Board of Education and the TSSAA,
as reflected in the Board’s rules and regulations, makes it clear that the Board of Education
viewed athletic activities in public schools to be one of its functions; otherwise, it would have
had no reason, or right, to ‘designate’ the TSSAA as ‘the organization to supervise and
regulate the athletic activities in which the public junior and senior high schools of Tennessee
participate on an interscholastic basis.’
Whether an organization performs a government function is of “utmost importance because ‘a governmental agency cannot, intentionally or unintentionally, avoid its disclosure obligations under the Act by contractually delegating its responsibilities to a private entity,” Clement wrote, quoting from a previous Tennessee Supreme Court ruling.
A story and the ruling can be found at a blog post by Steve Cavendish, news editor for the Nashville Scene, and editor for The City Paper when it filed the lawsuit, both publications owned by SouthComm Inc. Cavendish is also on the board of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, and president of the Middle Tennessee Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.
John P. Williams with Tune, Entrekin and White was The City Paper’s lawyer in the case.