Tennessee Freedom of Information Act
What is the Tennessee Freedom of Information Act?
The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is a federal act that went into effect in 1967, providing United States citizens with the right to access public records maintained by any federal government agency. The equivalent of the federal Act in Tennessee is the Tennessee Public Records Act (TPRA). The TPRA stipulates that public records are open for inspection or copying to any citizen of Tennessee, except as otherwise stated by law.
Tennessee initially passed the public records act in 1957, which requires that governmental entities permit full access to public records to all citizens of Tennessee. This Act provided that all municipal, county, and state records be open for inspection unless otherwise provided by law or regulations promulgated in accordance with it. In 1984, the Tennessee legislature amended the Act to provide access to all citizens except those exempted by state statutes. In 1991, the Act's language was further amended from "state statutes" to "state law," thereby limiting access to include exemptions under common law privileges.
The public records act was significantly revised in 2008 to make it more user-friendly. The Act was amended to add a deadline for record custodians to respond to requests and clauses establishing a reasonable charge for documents copies. Additionally, Tennessee established the Office of Open Records Counsel ("OORC") in 2008 as a department under the Office of the State Controller to help and advise public officials and the general public, including the media, on open records matters. The OORC acts as an ombudsman, mediating open records disputes and issuing written decisions on open records-related matters.
The public records act is constantly being revised. In addition to various statutes throughout the Tennessee Code that provide additional exemptions to the Act, the Act has been subjected to several pieces of legislation that have resulted in amendments. The goal of the Tennessee Public Records Act is to ensure transparency and accountability by providing citizens access to public records and improving the participation of the public in government.
What is Covered Under the Tennessee Freedom of Information Act?
All public records of public agencies at all levels of government in Tennessee are covered under the state's public records act, except in instances where records are statutorily considered confidential. Records covered under the TPRA include all papers, maps, documents, letters, books, microfilms, photographs, electronic data processing files and output, sound recordings, or any other materials regardless of the physical form of the record. However, per Tennessee Code Annotated (T.C.A.) § 10-7-301(6), these records must be received or made in accordance with an ordinance or law or in connection with the transaction of official business by a governmental agency.
What Records are Exempt from the Freedom of Information Act in Tennessee?
There are numerous exemptions contained in the Tennessee public records act. Under T.C.A 20-7-504, the following records are not open to the public:
- State workers' medical records, student records, and personal identifying information
- Any personal identifying information included in records maintained by the department of corrections and the department of probation and parole pertaining to the status of any criminal proceeding or convicted felon
- Any personal information relating to a former or current public employee, such as bank account information, retirement account information, health savings account, telephone number, residential address, driver's license information, or personal information related to the employee's family or family household members.
- Investigative records such as books, records, or other materials used by the attorney general's office for an administrative or legal proceeding.
- The military department's records, documents, and papers pertaining to the security of the United States and the state of Tennessee.
- State agency records containing opinions of valuation for real and personal property intended to be purchased for public use are not subject to public inspection until the acquisition is completed.
- Proposals submitted in accordance with personal service, professional service, consultant service contract requirements, as well as associated documents must be made available for public view only when the state has completed its evaluation.
- Sealed bids relating to the purchase of goods and services, leases of real property, and individual purchase records, including evaluations and memoranda pertaining to the same, must be made available for public inspection only when the state has completed its evaluation.
- The capital plans, marketing records, proprietary information, and trade secrets submitted to Middle Tennessee State University's Tennessee venture capital network
- Records of historical research value provided or sold to public archive institutions, public libraries, or libraries of the state board of regents or the University of Tennessee, with limits on access.
- Work-related critical incident counseling and therapy provided by mental health professionals in a group setting to law enforcement officers, county and municipal corrections officers, dispatchers, emergency medical technicians, emergency medical technician-paramedics (EMT-paramedics), and volunteer and professional firefighters.
- Software, software manuals, computer programs, and any other type of information marketed or manufactured by individuals or entities under legal right and licensed, donated, or sold to the Tennessee state boards, agencies, or higher education institutions.
- The credit card numbers of people who do business with the state or a political subdivision of the state, as well as any personal identification numbers (PINs) or authorization codes they use.
- Information that is relevant primarily to the protection of public property and the security of individuals on or within a public property.
- Records that would enable a person to discover areas of a utility service provider's structural or operational vulnerability or that would allow for the illegal interruption or interference with the utility service provider's services
For more information on exemptions under the Tennessee public records act, you may search the public database created by the Office of Open Records Counsel. The database contains statutory exemptions and amended exemptions from the 2018 session of the state's General Assembly.
How Do I File a Tennessee Freedom of Information Act Request?
Tennessee does not have a centralized repository for public records. Requests for public records must be directed to the governmental bodies maintaining the records in order to inspect or copy public records. After determining the public record you want to access, you should contact the office or the officer designated as the record custodian to obtain that governmental body's public record request policy. All governmental bodies covered under the Tennessee public records act are required to have a public records policy outlining the process for requesting access to public records, the process for responding to requests, any fees charged for copies of public records, and the name and title of the entity's Public Record Request Coordinator (PRRC). Note that under T.C.A § 10-7-503(a)(2)(A), only Tennessee citizens are authorized to inspect and copy public records.
Depending on the public records policy of the governmental body and the nature of the request, you may be required to make your request in writing or on a specified form. You may begin your public record request with an informal inquiry over the telephone. For most governmental bodies, you will be able to obtain the telephone number of the PPRC on the agency's website. If you cannot obtain the telephone number of the PPRC, you may contact the telephone number of the agency’s chief administrator, which is usually available on the agency's website. Alternatively, you may be able to find a fillable public record request form on the agency's website or an application form to download, complete, and mail to the relevant mailing address. Public record requests can also be filed in person, by fax, mail, or email if the governmental body uses such means of communication to transact official business.
Pursuant to T.C.A. § 10-7-503(a)(4), when making your request, it must be sufficiently detailed to enable the governmental body to identify the particular record for inspection or copying. Governmental bodies are not compelled to look through files and compile information in order to respond to a records request. As a result, a request may be declined if it does not clearly describe specific records or requires the custodian of records to sort through files or compile information. Also, in accordance with T.C.A § 10-7-503(a)(7)(A)(vi), a governmental body may require a requester to provide a government-issued photo identification that includes an address in order for the request to be fulfilled. If a requester cannot provide a government-issued photo ID that contains an address, the governmental body may accept alternative forms of identification. Alternative forms of valid identification will be specified in the public records policy of the governmental body.
The following are examples of filing public record requests with governmental entities in Tennessee:
- The Tennessee Department of Transportation: You can file your request to inspect public records by contacting the department's Legal Division at (615) 741-2491 or by email at TDOT.RecordsRequest@tn.gov. The TDOT only responds to requests to obtain copies of public records if they are made in writing. You may use the Records Request Form to complete a request.
- The Tennessee Department of Health: To make requests for the inspection of public records, you may request:
In-person: Andrew Johnson Tower
710, James Robertson Parkway
Nashville, TN 37243
By Telephone: at (615) 532-7663 or (615) 532-7665
By Fax: at (615) 532-7668
By Email: Health.PPRC@tn.gov
In writing: Public Records Request Coordinator
5th Floor, Andrew Johnson Tower
710 James Robertson Parkway
Nashville, TN 37243
Requests for copies of public records to the Department of Health may be made in writing to:
Andrew Johnson Tower
710 James Robertson Parkway
Nashville, TN 37243
By Email: Health.PPRC@tn.gov
What is the Cost of a Freedom of Information Act Request in Tennessee?
Pursuant to T.C.A. § 10-7-503(a)(7)(A)(i), custodians of public records are prohibited from charging a fee to requesters for inspecting public records except where otherwise required by law. However, a record custodian may charge a fee for copying costs and labor associated with producing copies of those specific records. A record custodian may charge reasonable costs as incurred in producing copies of public records and must provide an estimate of the reasonable costs in accordance with T.C.A. § 10-7-503(a)(7)(C). Reasonable costs for public records are outlined in the Schedule of Reasonable Charges established by the Office of Open Records Counsel. The Schedule stipulates that a governmental body may charge $0.15 per letter- and legal-size black and white copy and $0.50 per letter- and legal-size copy, except where the cost to produce a copy exceeds the threshold amount stated above. Labor costs that may be charged depend on the staff's hourly wage reasonably necessary to produce the requested record after one hour of work has been completed by the custodian in producing the requested information.
How Long Does it Take to Respond to a Freedom of Information Act Request in Tennessee?
According to T.C.A. § 10-7-503(a)(2)(B), public record custodians are required to make records available promptly, and if not, have seven business days to:
- Make the requested record available
- Deny the request in a written response to the requester
- State in writing the time required by the agency to produce the record
A delay may happen if the agency is currently facing a large volume of requests or if another agency needs to be contacted before the requested record may be disclosed. Pursuant to T.C.A. § 10-7-503(a)(3), a requester may pursue legal action in the chancery court or circuit court in the county where the records are maintained if a public record custodian fails to respond to a valid request within the 7-day window.