Knox County mayor proposes removing photography ban on public records

Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett has proposed changing the county’s public records policy to remove the ban on taking pictures of public records, a ban that was adopted when the county updated its public records policy to include language from a state model policy.

Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett

“In Tennessee, citizens can inspect public documents at no charge. There’s no reason they shouldn’t also be allowed to take pictures of those records with their own cellphone cameras,” Burchett said in a new release. “Our taxpayers already pay for these documents and access to public records shouldn’t be limited only to those who can afford to pay for copies.”

The news release also quoted from state law, noting the law allows citizens to take pictures of public records, T.C.A. §10-7-506(a):

(a) In all cases where any person has the right to inspect any such public records, such person 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; provided, that the lawful custodian of such records shall have the right to adopt and enforce reasonable rules governing the making of such extracts, copies, photographs or photostats.

Many citizens and journalists have complained about what appears to be a new and growing practice of not allowing people to take a picture of a public record, particularly as cell phones have become a popular way to “take notes” and share information.

Four members of the state’s Advisory Committee on Open Government (see links below) have asked the Office of Open Records Counsel to update its model policy.

Broadcasters association advises Open Records Counsel that blanket ban on photos of public records is unreasonable, inefficient

Tennessee Press Association calls on Open Records Counsel to ease ban on taking photos of public records

League of Women Voters of Tennessee asks Open Records Counsel to allow common sense use of everyday technology

TCOG urges Office of Open Records Counsel to update guidance on taking photos of public records

Lee Pope, the Open Records Counsel who was the deputy counsel when the model policy was adopted in January, told the Knoxville News Sentinel that the office interprets the law to allow government entities to dictate rules surrounding how copies are made.

“Really it allows them (government entities) to adopt reasonable rules … I can’t say whether or not allowing cellphones to take pictures is unreasonable,” Pope told the Knoxville News Sentinel.

The model policy adopted by the Office of Open Records Counsel includes language suggesting that government entities choose whether they “will” or “will not” allow citizens to use personal equipment to make copies:

D. A requestor will [not] be allowed to make copies of records with personal equipment.
[Indicate under what circumstances, if any, the Governmental Entity will permit
requestors to make their own copies or provide their own storage devices.]

It is becoming clear from citizen and journalist phone calls and emails to TCOG that a growing number of government entities have adopted the “will not” language and are banning citizens in all circumstances from taking pictures of public records based on this language, or from using any personal equipment to make copies.

The Knox County mayor’s office said in its press release that its current ban on photography of public records “is based on the model wording provided by the Tennessee Office of Open Records Counsel, but seems to contradict the state’s public records act.”

State lawmakers have also expressed concern about the new policy, which has been adopted by several state agencies. Most notably, state Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, asked three state agencies before his Joint Government Operations Committee in September to change their newly adopted policies to allow use of phones to take pictures.

Burchett’s proposed amendment must be reviewed by the Law Department, which originally drafted and presented the policy, and must be approved by the Knox County Commission before it takes effect.

The amendment does dictate some conditions around using personal equipment to make copies. It says such copying (or photography of records) will be allowed  “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.”

Several surrounding states have already addressed the issue of taking photos of public records, with attorneys generals in those states sometimes issuing opinions that recognize that such restrictive policies conflict with their state laws that call for the fullest possible public access to public records — as does Tennessee law.

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 to the document.

What do you think?