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BURRISS: Freedom of information helps public keep eyes on officials

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Larry Burriss

Last week, a Davidson County Chancery Court Judge ruled the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services has to open its records for public inspection.

The particular records in question have to do with the files of children who have died either while in the care of DCS or after having contact with the agency.

As is usual in these kinds of cases, we have to ask why it took a lawsuit to obtain access to records that are of critical interest to the public?

After all, the safety and health of children are of compelling interest to the community, and the public needs to know if agencies that deal with minors are doing so effectively.

An important consideration here is that the ruling is not just a victory for the press, but it is also a win for any citizen.

The Tennessee Public Records Act, as well as the federal Freedom of Information Act, applies to everyone, which means anyone who wants to can obtain records and see how public officials are doing.

So, if you think the media are being unfair or inaccurate, you can do your own comparison of what the agency is reportedly doing and what the press says government employees are doing.

There are, of course, privacy concerns when it comes to these kinds of documents.

That is why the judge exempted from disclosure the name of the victim, the name of the victim’s school and the name of the treating hospital.

And, in fact, these details are generally not relevant to the public’s understanding of how a state agency is functioning.

There has also been concern that the media would publish gruesome details found in the death reports, such a descriptions of victim’s bodies and autopsy findings.

But ask yourself this: In all of the news reports you have read about terrorist attacks and torture, how many contained explicit details?

Not many did.

The reports that did contain graphic descriptions that some people might find offensive carried numerous disclaimers and warnings.

Public agencies work for the public and are accountable to all of us.

The Public Records Act can tell us if public officials are, or are not, doing their jobs.

And that is information all of us should want to know.

Read more from:
DCS, FOIA, Journalism, Media Matters, Politics, Public Records ACT, Sunshine Law, Tennessee
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Members Opinions:
January 31, 2013 at 7:57am
Larry Burriss is good at cherry picking examples that justify the media having access to public records while skirting around those examples of irresponsible use of that information. The recent publishing of the names and addresses of registered gun owners by a Tennessee newspaper is only one example of the tabloid mentality that has crept into todays "news".
February 01, 2013 at 5:55am
I'm not aware of any Tennessee newspaper recently publishing names and addresses of registered gun owners. I do know that happened in a Westchester, N.Y., newspaper shortly after the Newtown, Conn., school massacre of 20 6- and 7-year-old children and six school employees. I would not call that tabloid journalism as much as I would call it a direct reaction of journalists who have learned that the murders were caused by a mentally ill young man who took the lawfully owned semi-automatic weapons from his mother's home after killing her. As far as I am concerned, the knowledge of who owns weapons trumps the use of such weapons in such an otherwise unimaginable tragedy.
February 02, 2013 at 12:45pm
By: bota on 2/2/13 [Delete]
vankent: You are correct, the newspaper was in New York - my bad. However, I disagree that the publishing of the names of the gun owners served any purpose that would lead to a safer society unless a corresponding list of persons with, or being treated for a mental disorder was published. After all the problem seems to be guns in the hands of the mentally disturbed so why start a "witch hunt" just to attempt to portray an image of a newpaper that is doing "investgative reporting. This is like reporting the names of everyone who visited a liguor store as being a potential DUI. That is more like tabloid gossip than useful information and in my opinion irresponsible.

February 04, 2013 at 6:48am
The Public Records Act is listed in the link to the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government.
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