Why can’t I access public records in Tennessee? A particular problem for “border” journalists

A freelance journalist who lives near Chattanooga “literally two blocks” from the state line gives her perspective on the city’s policy to deny her access to public records because she lives in Georgia.  She makes a good case for why that policy doesn’t make sense.

See Cari Wade Gervin’s column in Chattanooga Times Free Press: Expand access to records to all citizens

Tennessee state law provides a right of access to citizens of the state of all public records. That doesn’t mean government entities cannot provide public records to non-residents, they just don’t have to.

That position was upheld in 2013 in a Virginia case by the U. S. Supreme Court, McBurney v. Young.

Gervin notes that some government entities still allow non-residents access to public records, but others take the default position that they don’t have to so they won’t:

The thing is, it doesn’t have to be this way. There is nothing in state law that says a government agency has to turn down out-of-state residents, or even that they should. The city of Knoxville has changed its policy over the past year. “Our default is to fulfill media requests from out of state, unless they are overly burdensome or obviously unreasonable,” says city spokesperson Jesse Mayshark. The city of Nashville’s press secretary, Sean Braisted, says, “Metro Nashville is committed to promoting openness and transparency wherever possible,” and it fulfills out-of-state requests on a case by case basis.

Yet the three cities that actually sit on the borders — Chattanooga, Memphis, and Bristol — refuse all out-of-state requests on principle. It’s for consistency’s sake, I was told by Janina Muller in the city of Chattanooga’s legal department.

The actions of the city of Chattanooga affect far more that just its residents. Those actions affect the residents of the surrounding metro area, too, some of which just happens to be in another state.

One simply cannot run an open and transparent government when one is refusing access to the most basic sorts of city records to all tax-paying citizens, even if they happen to pay property taxes in another state. I hope that Mayors Andy Berke of Chattanooga and Jim Strickland of Memphis will revise their policies to mirror that of Mayor Madeline Rogero in Knoxville. A government of the people, by the people, and for the people only works when all people have equal access to information.


What do you think?