Tennessee Tech Trustees say students IDs not sufficient for public records requests

Tennessee Tech trustees rejected a request from journalism students to use their student identification card to prove they lived in Tennessee for purposes of making a public records request. However, trustees refused to change their policy, but said they would allow out-of-state students without a Tennessee driver’s license to show a utility bill, such as from their dorm or apartment, to prove their Tennessee residency. The students had gathered a petition with 150 signatures from students and faculty to change the policy after out-of-state students who worked for the student newspaper were denied access to public records. From left: Chairman Tom Jones, Trustee Johnny Stites, Tennessee Tech University President Phil Oldham and journalism instructor Vanessa Curry during a Tuesday morning Executive Committee meeting to discuss the school’s open records policy.

By Vanessa Curry, Instructor and Student Newspaper Adviser at Tennessee Tech

The general rule of thumb in requesting anything from a governing board is to ask for the moon in hopes of receiving at least a rock. Tennessee Tech University journalism students asked for a rock and likely will receive a grain of sand.

Something is better than nothing? It’s a step in the right direction? Baby steps! Right?

Their objective at the beginning of the spring semester seemed simple: change the open records policy to allow students to use their ID card as proof of residency. 

Currently, a student must show a valid Tennessee driver’s license — a policy that denied out-of-state and foreign students access. 

Students without TN driver’s license denied access to public records

During one semester, the editor of The Oracle – the student newspaper at Tech – couldn’t file an open records request because he is from Peru and didn’t drive. Another student from Illinois, who plays on the Golden Eagles football team, also could not file a request since he only had an out-of-state license.

This year provided a great learning opportunity for the students since the policy is up for its biennial review.

Students from the Society of Collegiate Journalists and The Oracle jumped at the chance to develop a campaign to revise the policy.

Students gather 150 signatures to allow student ID for records request

As president of the campus SCJ, junior Kendyl Seals attended a public hearing on the matter and organized a petition drive that produced 150 signatures in support from students and faculty members.

She distributed a media release about the project to the Cookeville Herald-Citizen, while club member Emma Holmes recorded video interviews with students adversely affected by the current policy.

They submitted the petition and video report during a presentation to Tech’s Board of Trustees on March 21.

The Oracle staff advocated for the policy change in an editorial published Feb. 26 and published news stories about every development in the campaign.

This is the type of learning experience an instructor like me enjoys watching throughout the process. I especially enjoy witnessing those “light-bulb” moments when a student applies what she learns from a classroom lecture or textbook. 

I also beamed with pride as they suppressed their fear of public speaking and stood before the full board of trustees and a room full of people to make their case.

Trustees reject change, say students can show utility bill

During an Executive Committee meeting on Tuesday, another journalism student took notes while board members discussed and then voted to deny the request to change the requirement.

They said changing the policy shows favoritism toward student requestors and that the current policy has enough “flexibility” to allow students to use a combination of their ID card and proof of residency i.e. a utility bill to access public records.

The wording of the policy will not change but how it is applied will, giving students that one small concession. The committee’s recommendation will be forwarded for a vote from the full board during its June meeting.

The students are disappointed but apparently not too surprised about the outcome. I am disappointed too. At this rate, it’s going to take more than my lifetime to build better open records policies and laws in Tennessee using one grain of sand at a time.

I certainly hope the next generation is up to the task.

What do you think?