Late last month, Gov. Bill Lee signed a bill sponsored by Rep. Glen Casada into law which has raised concerns among transparency advocates.
The bill makes cell phone numbers, most addresses and some other information confidential between an arrest and a conviction.
While it’s not as restrictive as an original version, some say it could still make it harder for reporters to verify certain facts, find sources, and tell the non-law enforcement side of the story. And while its sponsor is under FBI investigation, he doesn’t stand to benefit if he gets charged.
The problem the bill seeks to solve, Casada, R-Franklin, told House committees in March, is that lawyers seeking clients harass or “bombard” people when their information becomes public in police reports and other documents.
“My county government tells me that individuals are being harassed—not harassed but being contacted, and they don’t want to be contacted,” Casada told the House Public Service Committee in March. “It just protects individuals from badgering by attorneys.”
Sen. Janice Bowling, R-Tullahoma, lamented news reports of people charged with crimes, but not convicted.
“Representing rural counties, I think it’s terrible when the front page news is covered with all the people who were arrested or charged but never shows their picture when they were declared innocent or not convicted of the crime,” Bowling said on the Senate floor in early May. “To be arrested is one thing, to be found guilty is entirely another.”
The final version of the bill isn’t a major blow for transparency, according to several sources, but an earlier version kept much more information private. While Democrats may not have loved it, they didn’t bother putting up a fight; the bill passed unanimously in both the state House and Senate.
An original version of the bill, proposed by the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office, kept much more information confidential.
Casada and the bill’s other sponsor, Sen. Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, originally proposed to keep all physical addresses private between arrests and convictions, as well as video recorded by police.
That was a problem for Deborah Fisher, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government. Fisher’s organization didn’t seek to block the bill outright, but worked with the sheriff’s association to amend the bill to keep the street location of reported crimes open to the public — even if the address was the home address of the person arrested. Casada also agreed to a request by TCOG to remove the provision that would have made body camera footage confidential.
If there hadn’t been as many anti-transparency bills demanding her attention, she said, “we probably would have made a bigger run at it.”
Fisher, who worked for decades as a journalist before taking her current position, said these types of records were important to telling a full story.
“I knew it was important for triangulating, confirming information,” she said. “An address is important because sometimes you go there, or you call someone. [It’s] a way to get a full story.”
Joshua Eakle, executive director of For All Tennessee and former Tennessee Libertarian Party president, was concerned about the first version of the bill, but ended up satisfied it protected individuals’ privacy without compromising government transparency.
“It seemed like it raised some red flags” at first, Eakle said. “More transparency on police, less on people that are being charged.”
Neither Casada nor Johnson responded to requests for comment. The Williamson County Sheriff’s Office and the Tennessee Sheriffs’ Association didn’t respond, either.
“Under the cover of darkness”
While the most restrictive parts of the bill won’t become law, some questions remain.
Angel Stansberry, co-president of the People’s Plaza, said law enforcement has not been transparent in the aftermath of last summer’s racial justice protests at the State Capitol. She’s more alarmed by the bill than Fisher, For All and the Democrats.
Her organization sought the removal of the Nathan Bedford Forrest bust and other Confederate symbols, decreased funding for police departments and other reforms aimed at racial justice. Protesters camped out overnight at the capitol for weeks—an act Gov. Bill Lee later criminalized—and many were arrested.
“They are blocking press access to public records on our protesters’ pending charges from last summer plus trying to slip in more charges after the fact,” Stansberry told the Lookout.
“This is an effort for them to continue doing their dirt under the cover of darkness,” she said. “Absolute power corrupts absolutely. They think they’re a monarchy.”
Law won’t benefit Casada
Some advocates questioned Casada’s motives, as a lawmaker under investigation who may want to keep information about himself private.
But while this may shield some of Casada’s information if he’s charged, much of it is already public.
As a politician, he’s required to post a phone number, email address and physical address with his campaign finance reports. Many state officials, including lawmakers, are required to file an ethics and financial disclosure form, in which they state their sources of income, gifts and other information.
Casada sponsored the bill, but it wasn’t his idea; the sheriff’s office in his county asked him to sponsor the bill.
Of the fact that it was Casada, Fisher said, “There was nothing that made me suspect anything. . . I think that would be more of a coincidence.”
Too much work
According to Fisher, the stated reasons for the bill weren’t the ones she was told behind the scenes.
It's interesting to me because people voluntarily share all kinds of information abut themselves with companies . . . but when it comes to government releasing information through public records, all of a sudden they're all, 'privacy, privacy.' – Deborah Fisher, Tennessee Coalition for Open Government
Fisher said law enforcement groups complained that producing the data was too much work.
“Their intention was, they were getting a lot of requests from attorneys to produce that arrest information with home addresses and contact information,” Fisher said. “What they told me was it was a large volume of work that they were having to deal with, and they didn’t want to have to deal with it.”
She said there’s been an anti-transparency trend of making less and less criminal justice-related data public, but the final version of the bill isn’t a big enough deal to count as part of the trend.
“Will it have an impact?” she said. “I don’t know.”
“I think we are in an era where privacy is important to people,” Fisher said. “It’s interesting to me because people voluntarily share all kinds of information about themselves with companies . . . but when it comes to government releasing information through public records, all of a sudden they’re all, “privacy, privacy.’”
“If it causes a problem,” she said, “I want to know about it, and I’ll go back.”