A Cost for Information in Tennessee?

Tennessee lawmakers are considering legislation that would charge the public to access public records. Photo courtesy: Grafixar/morguefile.com

Tennessee lawmakers are considering legislation that would charge the public to access public records. Photo courtesy: Grafixar/morguefile.com

Right now, accessing public records in Tennessee costs nothing more than your time. But that may change as the state considers legislation that would impose a charge. As it stands, records custodians can only charge for making copies. “Citizens want to view public records for a variety of reasons,” says John Dunn, a spokesman for the Tennessee Comptroller’s Office. “They want to understand more about how their government operates. “Perhaps they’re looking into situation involving spending and they want to see how their public officials are spending their money. Those are all situations where they would need to review public records.” The state is holding public hearings in Knoxville, Nashville and Jackson to gather feedback on the issue. Civil rights groups, including the ACLU, oppose the charges, saying they would create a barrier for information that should be readily available. Conversely, preparing records for public review can involve several hours of state employees’ time, and charging for access would help to recoup that expense. Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the ACLU of Tennessee, explains her opposition to the proposal. “A vibrant democracy requires a transparent government,” she states. “When you try to create obstacles to accessing records, you are putting a cloak upon all of what government does and trying to ensure that there is some layer of secrecy.” Dunn says the public comment will allow for a discussion on balancing people’s rights to information with the burden on the state to provide it. “I think the central question here will be balancing the public’s right to know and to view public records with the cost that governments may have when compiling records, redacting records and reviewing records,” he says. Many states don’t allow for the collection of fees to search and review records for public access, but others such as Alabama and North Dakota set hourly rates for those services. The federal Freedom of Information Act allows for agencies to charge for searching for and copying records, but not for redacting the information.