How Should Access Be Provided?

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The law states that records shall be open to inspection “during business hours.”  Every effort should be made to provide reasonable accommodation to parties requesting access to records; however, providing this service need not prevent the performance of other duties of the office. A request to see every record of an office and make a photocopy of each of them could obviously bring the entire operation of an office to a halt. For this reason, the official who has custody of the records is also authorized by law to adopt and enforce reasonable rules governing the making of extracts, copies, photographs or photostats of the records.[1]These regulations should be reasonable and not interfere with the intent of the legislature to provide broad public access to records. The official with custody of the record should strive to balance the right to access records with his or her responsibility to preserve and protect the records. Regulations should be tailored to accommodate requests in a timely manner while allowing for the continued efficient functioning of the office and for the preservation and security of the records. Regulations that are intended to frustrate the ability of a citizen to access records will likely be found unreasonable and struck down by the courts. The county public records commission may serve as a valuable resource in developing and drafting these regulations.

Although there is little legal authority in this area, the following are some examples of regulations that would likely be found reasonable by a court:

  • Establishing that copies of records would be provided within a reasonable time period (for example: the next business day for small requests and within five business days for larger requests);
  • Prohibiting the inspection and copying of records by citizens without supervision of the official or an employee of the office; and
  • Prohibiting the handling of older bound volumes or other fragile records by anyone other than an employee of the office so long as the information in the records is still provided in a usable format.

Another possible regulation could provide that requests for inspection of a large number of records would be accommodated only by appointment pursuant to a written request. In a 2001 opinion, the attorney general was asked to consider a very similar requirement. In opinion 01-021, the attorney general found that there was no clear answer to the question. While the public records laws are to be interpreted to allow the fullest possible access, this should not lead to absurd results. The attorney general opined that if a citizen challenged a requirement to set an appointment to view records, a court might not find this requirement to be tantamount to a denial of access if the agency could articulate a reasonable basis for requiring the appointment. Absent a legitimate reason, the court may conclude the requirement of an appointment was merely being used to delay access to the records.[2]  This opinion therefore appears to support the idea that local officials can implement reasonable regulations so long as there is a clear, articulated reason for the regulation that relates to goals of records management. .

            [1]  T.C.A. § 10-7-506(a).

            [2]  See Op. Tenn. Att’y Gen. No. 01-021 (February 8, 2001).