'Strong Thoughts: Freedom of Information Act open to anyone
by CHRISTY ARMSTRONG Banner Staff Writer
Jul 20, 2014 | 468 views | 0 0 comments | 14 14 recommendations | email to a friend | print
My journalism career is based on a desire to share information with others.

Given that fact, I am always wary of those who try to keep information from others — publicly-elected officials included.

It is up to the citizens of a community to keep their public officials honest.

What many people do not know is they have access to public records that keep track of what their governments do.

All they have to do is ask for them.

The United States Freedom of Information Act allows for many different types of federal documents to be released in the name of transparency.

Each state in the union has different laws pertaining to accessing its public records. While the Freedom of Information Act dictates what is done with federal records, state acts dictate what is done with state, county and city records.

What all those laws do have in common is the idea that what publicly elected officials do should be done within full view of the people they serve.

Tennessee Code Annotated 10-7-503 Section B outlines how the state’s open records requests should be handled:

“The custodian of a public record or the custodian's designee shall promptly make available for inspection any public record not specifically exempt from disclosure. In the event it is not practicable for the record to be promptly available for inspection, the custodian shall, within seven (7) business days: (i) Make the information available to the requestor; (ii) Deny the request in writing or by completing a records request response form developed by the office of open records counsel. The response shall include the basis for the denial; or (iii) Furnish the requestor a completed records request response form developed by the office of open records counsel stating the time reasonably necessary to produce the record or information.” 

Tennessee’s guidelines get specific about what can be made available as part of the public record.

Section (a)(1) of Tennessee Code Annotated 10-7-503 defines what can be included: 

“As used in this part and title 8, chapter 4, part 6, ‘public record or records’ or ‘state record or records’ means 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 agency.”

That means, in Tennessee, residents have access to many public documents, and residents can ask to view or get copies of them. If a government entity feels the need to deny the request, it is obligated to write a letter saying why using specific state statutes as evidence.

A disagreement recently arose regarding whether or not documents related to the annual evaluation of the Bradley County school system’s director, Johnny McDaniel, could be released.

To make what was at the time a really long story fairly short, Bradley County Board of Education members filled out individual evaluation forms that asked them to rank McDaniel’s performance in several different categories.

I requested copies of those documents with the belief they would have likely fallen under the list of documents that could be released under state law.

After McDaniel’s assistant consulted with school board attorney Chris McCarty, she relayed the message that the attorney said they could not be released because they were “working papers” used to make McDaniel’s averaged evaluation score.

An opinion later sought from Tennessee Open Records Counsel Elisha Hodge was at odds with that denial of access to the evaluation forms.

Hodge said the opinion of her office, which is under the authority of the state government, was that “if the records exist, they should be made accessible for inspection in response to the public records requests that have been made.”

McCarty later sent the Banner copies of the forms. However, he was sure to specify in a cover letter that he, acting as the school system’s counsel, disagreed with Hodge’s opinion.

While open records disputes like that do happen from time to time, it should not deter people from requesting information pertaining to government entities.

Some people erroneously think that journalists only make public information requests to get the information they need to paint someone in a certain light. Some also think only journalists can make public information requests.

Neither of those assumptions is true.

Requesting information related to the school director’s evaluation was not about making anyone look good or bad; it was about presenting readers with the facts so they could decide for themselves.

In that particular case, it was about reporting the facts related to how a school system, the entity responsible for educating a community’s children and teenagers, evaluated its director.

Anyone can request public information, and they should because it can help them verify whether or not something they have heard is true.

There is a silly saying in some journalism circles that was coined to remind novice reporters of the need to be careful to verify their sources of information.

“If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”

Yes, even something like love can be verified. Actions speak louder than words. If a person’s actions show they love someone, then you can say the love is true.

Other qualities can be verified too. For example, we can see if someone is really as honest as they say they are.

If there are documents that can serve as a testament to a person’s honesty, shouldn’t they be out in the open?

If documents show someone is dishonest, shouldn’t they also be available to the citizens who had enough faith in that person to vote him or her into office?

After all, the United States was founded upon the idea of freedom, which implies honesty and transparency.

When a journalist requests public documents, he or she may have an idea of what they might or might not contain. Still, it is impossible to verify whether or not something is true if they are not given access to the evidence.

I don’t deal in rumors. I much prefer the facts. I want to make sure the truth gets told.

In order for the public to know whether or not something they heard about their government’s dealings is true, it needs access to the evidence, the public records.

That is why I like to remind people that both the federal and many of the state governments have laws that say anyone can request information about what their officials are doing.

The public elects its officials so those officials can serve those who voted them into office. It’s not the other way around.

The same people who elect public officials can hold those officials accountable for what they do or don’t do.