Jared Felkins' column: State records should be open to anyone, everyone

“A popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or, perhaps, both.”
Mar 16, 2013

“A popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or, perhaps, both.”
— President James Madison, 1822

It’s certainly disconcerting – if not all together alarming – to discover I have broken the law multiple times over the past six months.

Yes, I’m telling on myself. I’m turning myself in, if you will, for any law enforcement agency to come, slap the cuffs on me and haul me off to jail to await fair trial and sentence. After all, I’m pleading guilty and admitting guilt right here in writing.

My defense is purely an ignorance of Tennessee law. My crime is requesting access to public records as a non-official resident of the Volunteer State. You see, I haven’t gone and gotten my Tennessee driver’s license yet.

It’s something I’ve been planning to do. I just haven’t gotten around to it yet.

And it’s not that I haven’t been persuaded. In fact, a member of Lebanon’s police force who pulled me over about two weeks ago to warn me of a burned-out headlight pointed out my need to break down and get that new license.

The policeman was also nice enough to point out I was unlawful in operating my car, which is tagged and registered in Wilson County, while I have an out-of-state license.

I have a date with the Department of Motor Vehicles on Monday.

On a side note, I was able to vote during the November presidential election using my out-of-state license, however, I did have to produce two forms of proof of residence. The process only added to my apathy of getting my new Tennessee driver’s license.

That leads me to my latest unlawful misdeeds. Apparently I am guilty of requesting access to public records in Tennessee without being a full-fledged resident. I do live here, I would like to proudly admit, else it would be quite the commute each morning. But showing actual proof of that might just be daunting as the process I undertook to vote. I just don’t keep two forms of proof of residence on me all the time.

There’s some gray area here.

What’s criminal, however, is Tennessee’s sunshine law regarding this fact, and it was brought to light this week by The Associated Press during Sunshine Week across the U.S. through the Tennessee Sunshine Quiz.

The Tennessee Sunshine Quiz is sponsored by the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government through the support of the Tennessee Press Association, Tennessee Association of Broadcasters and The Associated Press.

According to the AP, most people quizzed recently about open-government laws did not know that only Tennessee citizens are guaranteed access to public records from state and local governments, according to the online findings.

Nearly three-fourths of people who have taken the Tennessee Sunshine Quiz gave incorrect responses to a question about that portion of the state’s Public Records Act.

Open-government advocates would like to see the requirement removed. They say the restriction makes it difficult for out-of-state requesters to obtain Tennessee records on issues of broad public interest.

As of March 6, 335 people had taken the 15-question quiz about the public’s right to attend government meetings and access public records in Tennessee. Questions test knowledge of the law, including the cost to copy public documents and how to find out when a government body is meeting. At the end, the quiz provides the correct answers.

Frank Gibson, public policy director for the Tennessee Press Association, said the 1957 Public Records Act specifies that records shall be open to “any citizen of Tennessee,” but government agencies don’t apply that clause uniformly and some officials interpret it to mean they must deny requests from people outside the state.

“It is a frequently abused section of the law,” Gibson said.

He said a 2006-07 legislative study committee recommended the restriction be removed because at least one federal appeals court had ruled similar restrictions to open records were a violation of the U.S. Constitution.

The U.S. Supreme Court is weighing the issue of whether states can limit public records’ access to only citizens in a case from Virginia.

So where does that leave me? Am I unlawful because I have requested open records in Tennessee in the past six months? Are the people who gave me those records in trouble as well?

I think the only thing we know for certain is that this law is antiquated and needs to be changed, and I challenge any and every lawmaker in Tennessee to take up this plight in the form of a bill immediately.

After all, what to we have to hide? Until then, I throw myself at the mercy of the court and beg forgiveness.

Jared Felkins is The Democrat’s director of content. Email him at jfelkins@lebanondemocrat.com or follow him on Twitter @paperboyfelkins.

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