By Deborah Fisher
Tenn. Coalition for Open Govt.
The Office of Open Records Counsel is conducting public hearings in Knoxville, Nashville and Jackson in September to ask the question: Should the Tennessee Public Records Act permit the government to charge citizens to inspect public records?
The Tennessee Coalition for Open Government believes that charging citizens to view public records would make it easier for some government officials to block citizen access to records. We believe that the result of a change in Tennessee law would be immediate: Some citizens would no longer be able to view public records because they could not afford to pay the fees.
The change would roll back Tennessee’s legal tradition of favoring government transparency and give officials who wish to limit access a new club to use to hinder access to records they don’t want anyone to see. In essence, it would create a new exemption to the Tennessee Public Records Act: A government record is exempt from the Public Records Act if a citizen can’t pay the price set by the government official to see it.
Our great state of Tennessee would have the equivalent of a “poll tax” for public records, opening the door for arbitrary charges that would be nearly impossible to challenge. We know the result of that kind of system.
Why is it bad to block society’s access to government records?
Public records belong to the citizens of Tennessee. They pay for these records through their taxes. Government officials are public servants and should make it a very high priority to honor the right of citizens to information about their government. The right of access to public records long predates the Tennessee Public Records Act. The Act should not become a tool to restrict access to records that clearly ought to be public.
TCOG believes that access to government records is crucial for informed citizen participation in a democracy.
Broad and free access to public records is essential to holding government officials accountable. Government serves citizens, not the other way around. Citizens must know what their public officials and employees are doing, and how they are doing it. If public officials and employees get to choose what citizens get to know about what government is doing, the constitutional power vested in citizens in a democracy is destroyed.