Knox County Commission removes photography ban on public records

The Knox County Commission tonight eliminated a short-lived ban on photography of public records and updated its public records policy to allow citizens to use personal equipment to make their own copies subject to some rules.

Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett

Mayor Tim Burchett had requested the change and in a consent vote, commissioners unanimously supported removing the ban.

TCOG has tracked the growing issue of government entities suddenly banning people from snapping photos with their smartphones of public records they are inspecting. This has particularly affected journalists who use phones to take notes and share information.

The Knox County Commission’s action appears to be the first of what we hope will be more reversals on such bans. Many of bans were were adopted by government entities in Tennessee this year as they adopted new public records policies — a process required by law.

The Knox County Commission also updated its policy to add 11 “public records request coordinators” who could handle public records requests. Previously, only one was identified in the policy. The move decentralizes the records requests across government departments (such as the election commission and sheriff’s office) instead of bottlenecking requests through a single office.

It appears the source of bans can be traced to a Model Public Records Policy released in January by the Office of Open Records Counsel that contained language suggesting a government entity decide whether it would or would not allow citizens to use personal equipment to make copies of public records. Many government entities who followed the Model Policy’s language chose to not allow it at all.

The issue came up in a state legislative committee hearing when state Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, urged three state agencies before it that day who had adopted the ban in new policies to end the practice and “allow our citizens to use all the available technology under supervision that is available to them out there — and one of them being able to photocopy a record with a cell phone.”

The agency’s representatives before the committee were surprised by the language, and said they thought they were just following the Open Records Counsel’s model policy. Likewise, Knox County government officials said they had adopted the policy as suggested in the model policy developed by the Open Records Counsel, an office then held by Ann Butterworth.

The resolution approved Monday by Knox County commissioners would remove from the county policy the suggested sentence from the model policy that stated: “A requester will not be allowed to make copies of records with personal equipment” and insert instead:

“A requestor will be allowed to make copies of records with personal equipment, provided that the requestor’s duplication of such records does not impede other citizens’ access to county services or records, and that the requestor is willing to schedule an appointment for the purposes of duplicating a large number of records or records that are stored off-site or are not immediately accessible. However, an independent Knox County officeholder (either elected or appointed) may, in his/her discretion, adopt and enforce reasonable rules governing the use of personal equipment to make copies of records. In all cases, the use of personal storage devices (i.e. external hard drives, flash drives, etc.) or any equipment that must be connected to- or inserted into any County computer, equipment or network is prohibited.”

While the resolution doesn’t promise that no rules will be implemented for people using their own copy equipment, it does make clear that only “reasonable rules” can be adopted, echoing state law.

TCOG, and three other entities who serve on the Advisory Committee on Open Government to advise the Office of Open Records Counsel, have urged Open Records Counsel Lee Pope to update the model policy with different language.

TCOG based its advice on state law that for any record a citizen is allowed to inspect, the citizens “shall have the right to take extracts or make copies thereof, and to make photographs or photostats of the same while such records are in the possession, custody and control of the lawful custodian thereof or such custodian’s authorized deputy…”

While the model language included a suggestion in parenthesis to “(i)ndicate under what circumstances, if any, the Governmental Entity will permit requestors to make their own copies or provide their own storage devices,” few policies examined by TCOG have included any circumstances that photography or self-copying would be allowed.

Several states in the southeast and elsewhere have already addressed this issue, with those states either through attorney general opinions or by another method clarifying that government entities must allow citizens to take photos of public records.

For example, Kentucky, Virginia, Georgia, Maine, Iowa, Florida, Washington, Texas, Arizona and Louisiana are just some states that allow photography and use of personal equipment to make copies of non-exempt public records. If there are restrictions, they are narrow and limited to when there is a credible threat of damage or tearing.

2 thoughts on “Knox County Commission removes photography ban on public records

  1. Bob Miles

    Mayor Burchett also believes citizens should not have to pay to see records. This is a Knox News Sentinel article from 2015:

    Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett filed comments with the Office of Open Records Counsel today, expressing opposition to charging taxpayers to inspect public documents, saying it would be a step backward.

    Burchett wrote:

    As a former state senator, I had the opportunity to sponsor bills updating and strengthening portions of the current Open Records Act. As a legislator, my focus was – and remains today – on ensuring openness and transparency in government. Accountability begins with access, and true accountability means reducing, not increasing, obstacles to access public records.

    Charging taxpayers for exercising their right to merely inspect the very documents their taxes pay to produce is a ridiculous step backward, out of the sunshine and into the shadows.

    It is my hope that members of the state legislature will not approve such a measure.

    The comments were in response to three public hearings planned for next week by the Office of Open Records Counsel. The hearings are intended to gather input and information before the Open Records Counsel makes a recommendation to the Legislature in January on a proposal to change the law to allow governments in Tennessee to charge citizens to look at public records. The law currently prohibits charges if a citizen wants to simply look at a record, but allows governments to charge fees if someone wants copies of public records.

    The first hearing is in Knoxville on Tuesday, followed by a hearing in Nashville on Wednesday and in Jackson on Thursday. (More information about the hearings here.) In addition to the hearings, where citizens can sign up to speak in advance, the Office of Open Records Counsel is asking for written comment to be emailed to

    (TCOG has also prepared comments to questions being posed by the Office of Open Records Counsel: TCOG answers 5 questions on charging fees for public records.)

    Burchett’s communications director, Michael Grider, also filed comments with the Open Records Counsel, noting that part of his job entails responding to and fulfilling open records requests:

    As a former journalist and current public information professional, I’m concerned about the negative impact that passage of SB0328/HB0315 would have on public access to government records at the state and local level.

    Charging citizens simply to view records that are open to the public creates an undue burden that only discourages public scrutiny and, as a result, diminishes state and local governments’ accountability to citizens.

    As Director of Communications for Knox County Government, part of my job entails responding to- and fulfilling open records requests. In my experience, the number and volume of public records inspection requests is not so demanding that it warrants charging a citizen for inspection of public records.

    Currently, if a Tennessee resident desires to inspect a public document but cannot otherwise afford to pay a fee in order to obtain copies of that record, he or she has the no-cost alternative of reviewing the record without the need to copies. Public records should be accessible to all citizens, not just to those who have the financial means to pay a fee in order to review records.

    Put simply, passage of this bill would afford our government leaders protection from prying eyes, when in fact the spirit and purpose of maintaining public records is to protect the interests of our citizens.

    Inspection of public records should remain a fee-free and protected right of any citizen of the State of Tennessee.

  2. Sandy Sullivan

    The citizens direct the governments practices; government serves the people. Public records are owned by the public, not by record caretakeres. Our tax dollars were used to create the records so double charging citizens to view what they paid for creating and storing already is double dipping tax payers illegally.


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