March 15-21 is celebrated as National Sunshine Week. The celebration was launched by the American Society of News Editors in 2005 to draw attention to the need to push back against government secrecy.
It also gives us a chance to look at Tennessee's Sunshine Law.
It's gives you the right to inspect records at any time.
The Tennessee Sunshine Law gives Tennessee residents (you may be asked to show a valid Tennessee ID) the right to access to governmental records and government meetings.
It requires all governmental entities to designate a "records custodian" and have a public records policy that sets the process for requesting access to public records, the process for responding to requests, a statement of any fees charged for copies of public records, and the name and title of the custodian.
According to the Tennessee Open Records Counsel, "Public Records” are “all documents, papers, letters, maps, books, photographs, microfilms, electronic data processing files and output, films, sound recordings, or other material, regardless of physical form or characteristics, made or received pursuant to law or ordinance or in connection with the transaction of official business by any governmental entity.”
There are a few exclusions, like documents related to on-going criminal investigations or open lawsuits against a government entity. Personal information is often redacted.
If you want copies of records, the request must be submitted in writing. Some governments require a form be filled out, others will accept a letter.
However, if you only want to inspect the records and not make copies, those requests can be made in person with no written request. The Sunshine Law actually prohibits charging a fees to inspect the records. But copies will cost you. Government entities can charge a per page fee and labor costs related to providing the copies and redacting sensitive information.
If the records are readily available, the custodian is required to provide them promptly. If not, they have seven business days to respond to your request, either providing the records, an estimate of cost or denial of the request.
More information about public records can be found here.
It makes almost all government meetings open to the public.
The Tennessee Sunshine Law declares that the formation of public policy and public business must be transacted in public and not in secret.
The Tennessee Open Meetings Act requires all meetings of a governing body to be open to the public and that a governing body provide adequate public notice of the meeting.
A meeting is a gathering of elected officials who can deliberate toward or make a decision or hold a vote if a quorum is required.
A governing body is an elected body of two or more members with the authority to make a decision on behalf of the public. It does actually exclude chance meetings of two or more elected officials.
There are a few exceptions. Tennessee General Assembly can meet in private at anytime. Other bodies can meet in private to discuss pending litigation with private counsel in an executive session.
It was written by 2 Rutherford County lawmakers.
The Tennessee Open Records Act was sponsored by former state Rep. John Bragg in 1972. Bragg represented parts of Rutherford and Cannon counties, and as a former newspaper owner and past president of the Tennessee Press Association, he understood that sunshine is indeed the best disinfectant.
Bragg teamed up with Jerry Gaither, then a member of the Rutherford County Commission and founding president of the Tennessee County Commissioners Association. When he was elected to the Commission in 1968, Gaither looked for rules governing public access to meetings and documents. He found that the commission gave no notice of upcoming meetings, had no agendas, took no minutes.
"Back then we had 30 or more committees that met whenever they wanted without a quorum, no agendas or minutes were kept, no press, no rules, and sometimes arguments would nearly come to blows in the hallway," Gaither said in 2011.
So he took matters into his own hands and served as chairman on a committee to develop guides for record keeping, public notification and press access for all Rutherford County committee meetings.
The rules were adopted on a unanimous vote by the county in 1969.
Bragg took note and drafted the Tennessee Open Records Act, a.k.a., the Tennessee Sunshine Law. The legislation passed the Tennessee General Assembly and as signed into law by Governor Winfield Dunn in 1974.
It's not the same as FOIA.
While the Tennessee Sunshine Law applies to Tennessee's public records and government meetings, the U.S. government has its own version of the law called the Freedom of Information Act.
Enacted in 1967, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) gives the public the right to request access to records from any federal agency. Because of FOIA, federal agencies are required to disclose any information requested under the FOIA unless it falls under one of nine exemptions which protect interests such as personal privacy, national security, and law enforcement.