The “father” of Tennessee’s Sunshine Law died on Tuesday at age 91.
His funeral is today in Columbia.
Sam Kennedy, the former longtime publisher of The Columbia Daily Herald, served his community in many capacities, including in journalism, law and government.
He served as General Sessions Judge and District Attorney for the 14th Judicial District, 1958-1965, when he helped organize the District Attorney Conference. He was elected for one term as Maury County Executive in 1992 (he did not run for re-election). He also held state roles including as a member of the Tennessee State School Board and the Law Revision Commission.
But the center of his career was as a newspaper man.
Through his work with the Tennessee Press Association, he is credited with leading the charge to have the General Assembly adopt the Sunshine Law, also known as the Open Meetings Act, in 1974. The law declared “it to be the policy of this state that the formation of public policy and decisions is public business and shall not be conducted in secret.” (T.C.A. § 8-44-101)
“That may sound like common sense today, but 50 years ago, when we started pushing for a Sunshine Law, there was opposition at every turn,” Kennedy explained in a 2016 interview with the Herald.
After passage, the Open Meetings Act was immediately challenged in court by local governments. Memphis argued that parts were so vague as to render it unconstitutional because officials would not know how to avoid violations. Metro-Nashville’s school board tested it in another lawsuit, arguing that the term “to deliberate” was not defined.
Both challenges failed, and the Tennessee Supreme Court underscored the constitutional legitimacy of the statute in the Nashville case when it wrote in Dorrier v. Dark (1976):
“…in the first two sentences of [Article 1, Section 19], the [Tennessee] Constitution provides freedom of the press, open government and freedom of speech. Clearly, the Open Meetings Act implements the constitutional requirement of open government.”
When Kennedy was inducted into the State Open Government Hall of Fame, Gregg Jones, then CEO of Jones Media in Greeneville and now executive vice president of Adams Publishing, said it was Kennedy’s “insider’s view” of the legal, government and journalism communities that helped him clearly understand the value of open government and “the enormous dangers to democracy a lack of transparency represents.”