Published Dec. 17, 2004
Open records study opens dialogue
The Associated Press recently released a series of stories
on an audit on compliance with the Tennessee open records law
by government agencies across the state including city and county
offices in Cumberland County.
While the audit left some local officials feeling they had
been portrayed in a less than favorable light, the audit was
important and good and gives us an opportunity for dialogue on
We at the Chronicle have been very fortunate over the
years to enjoy a good working rapport with local government officials
when it comes to records that we need to keep you informed.
On Nov. 4 or 5 a young lady representing the Tennessee Coalition
for Open Government visited local offices. At the sheriff's office
she asked the clerk to see copies of reports. The clerk, trying
to oblige, asked what kind of reports and the answer was, just
When pressed for a name the report might be filed under, the
young lady responded, "Does it matter?" This left the
secretary scratching her head and uncertain as to what the auditor
was asking. A similar encounter was reported by city police.
The Chronicle, for the most part, does not have trouble
obtaining offense and arrest reports from city police and the
sheriff's department. It is true, we do not see every report
despite a standing request to do so, but records that we do not
see are not withheld maliciously or for the sole purpose of keeping
someone's name out of the paper.
What we find happening is that sometimes a detective working
on a case will have the original offense report in their possession.
Sometimes night officers will make an arrest and then take their
file to court the following day. Sometimes these reports do not
make their way to the media file.
The biggest problem we face is the lack of understanding on
how reports involving juveniles are handled. The police department
withholds the majority of juvenile arrests reports and most offense
reports that involve juveniles, either as a victim or as someone
That is not what the law says. The law says it shall be illegal
to release the name of a juvenile without permission of a juvenile
judge. Offense reports where the juvenile is a victim are public
records. We believe arrest reports of juveniles are public record
but media copies cannot include the juvenile's name or Social
When it came to the school board, a similar situation took
place when records governing school suspensions were sought.
A request for copies of student suspensions was denied because
the document has the student's name and Social Security number
In both cases, the situation can be easily remedied. A copy
of the the report being sought, whether it be suspension report
or arrest report, can be made and then the student's protected
information simply blacked out. That way, the juvenile is protected
and the public is given access to the information that is public
In the case of suspension records, one has to wonder why a
student's name and Social Security number is on a document that
is supposed to be public record.
One conflict with the state open records law lies with accident
reports which are under the care and custody of the Tennessee
Department of Public Safety. A trooper spokesperson said accident
reports are public record despite the age of the driver involved.
This conflicts with the law that protects a juveniles name
because the state position on accident reports is that teen drivers
are identified. I believe this to be a good interpretation of
the law simply because driving is a privilege, not a birth rite.
I once was faced with how to report a head-on collision involving
a 16-year-old driver and a 38 year-old motorist, both of whom
were charged with drunk driving and equally at fault in this
Ohio open records law is similar to Tennessee's and we published
both driver's names and their charges.
One misconception we find with the public is the belief that
it is against the law to publish a juvenile's name. There is
no law governing publication of a juvenile's name. Just a law
that prohibits officials from providing the names of juveniles
in specified circumstances.
We don't abuse the privilege, however, and weigh each and
every circumstance on its own merit.
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Mike Moser is the editor of the Crossville Chronicle. His
column is published periodically on Fridays.