A proposal by Sen. Ferrell Haile, R-Gallatin, would allow state and local authorities to take individuals seeking public records to court if their repeated requests for government information is found to constitute “harassment.”
Haile sought input on his proposed legislation Wednesday from the the Advisory Committee on Open Government, which works with the Tennessee Office of Open Records Counsel to advise state officials on Tennessee’s public records laws.
Tennessee’ public records laws, allowing members of the public to access a wide range of government records — from police body cam footage to lawmakers’ finance disclosures — are among the broadest in the nation. Yet there are more than 600 exceptions, which some critics have said dilute the original intent of open records law to make the workings of government open to its citizens.
Haile said the impetus for his proposed legislation is from outliers who abuse the state’s public records laws to file frivolous requests. He said it stemmed from one individual in Gallatin whose constant requests for local police records filled binders and cost the town tens of thousands of dollars in staff time and photocopying costs.
“The police department has actually set up a computer just for this individual to ask for these public records that he does absolutely nothing with and I’m not sure why he’s harassing the police department in particular but he has been arrested on some DWI charges and some other charges,” Haile said Wednesday.
“I do not want to stop the ability of the public to get information about the government that they want,” he said. “I am in full agreement with that. But when you’ve got an individual who’s costing the taxpayer through the police department $20,000 to $30,000 a year just to answer these requests and this has been going on a couple of years maybe even longer…”
Haile has already introduced legislation to be considered next year when the legislature reconvenes.
“This is not intended to interfere with any honest inquiries,” he said. “And it’s not intended to discourage anyone from asking for information.”