In recent years, more and more states are changing their public records laws, updating the public’s right to know for the 21st century. Many of these changes are positive and necessary to support a transparent and accountable government. However, some states have taken a radically different — and decidedly misguided — approach.
For example, Tennessee has proposed charging records requesters fees to view records. Although fees are normally associated with producing a copy of the requested record, Tennessee is only state looking to charge requesters for merely inspecting them. Lawmakers have argued that the fees are necessary due to what they described as extensive records requests that take up too much of records custodians’ time. But this would be a clear step backward for openness.
Currently as it stands in Tennessee, there is no charge for purely reviewing public records (electronic or otherwise) at the locations they are maintained and stored. While the custodian of public records has the right to adopt and enforce reasonable rules governing the making of copies, the introduction of viewing fees would unreasonably complicate requestors’ right to know. These fees would act as an extraneous, unfair barrier to a citizen’s fundamental right to access government records.
In an effort to gain support for this legislation, lawmakers have asked that the public complete a survey to provide their input and comments on the proposed legislation. But the response has been clearly negative. Local journalists swiftly condemned the proposal; amongst others, WSMV-TV anchor Demetria Kalodimos was quoted in The Chattanooga Times Free Press as saying the effort would hamper the press’ ability to watchdog and hold governments accountable.
Tennessee’s move toward charging for inspection of records serves as a deterrent and limits the public’s right to know. Despite their being a concern by lawmakers regarding the staff time used in completing records request, the answer is not to further complicate an outdated system by charging extra fees. Instead, the answer is to review the way records requests are handled and create a more efficient system, not a more lucrative fee. After all, public records belong to the public.