The TPRA, Government, Public Records, and Data Security
The Tennessee Public Records Act (TPRA) is a public records access law that was originally passed by the state legislature in 1957. Subsequently, the law was amended numerous times after being initially passed in 1957, most notably in 2008, when the provisions of the law were changed to mandate that record custodians respond to all requests for access to their public records within 7 days. To this end, the law grants citizens of the state of Tennessee the right to request access to the public records of their state government agencies, as well as the circumstances under which a government agency is permitted to deny a requestor access to the public records of said agency.
How are public records defined under the TPRA?
Under the Tennessee Public Records Act, public records are defined as “all documents, papers, letters, maps, books, photographs, microfilms, electronic data processing files and output, films, sound recordings, or other material, regardless of physical form or characteristics made or received pursuant to law or ordinance or in connection with the transaction of official business by any governmental agency.” Conversely, the term public records does not include “the device or equipment, including, but not limited to, a cell phone, computer, or other electronic or mechanical device or equipment, that may have been used to create or store a public record or state record.”
What are the requirements of records custodians under the TRPA?
The requirements that records custodians working on behalf of government agencies have under the provisions of the Tennessee Public Records Act as it concerns the right of citizens of the state to access, copy, and inspect the public records of said agencies include but are not limited to:
- Records custodians are required to redact any confidential information that may be contained within a public record before providing the said record to a requestor.
- Government agencies, as well as records custodians that work on behalf of said agencies, are prohibited from avoiding their obligations under the provisions of the law by delegating their responsibilities to a private or third-party entity.
- Records custodians are forbidden from requiring a written request, or assessing a requestor a charge to access their public records, unless otherwise stated by law.
- Records custodians are permitted to promulgate rules that requestors must follow for the purpose of protecting the confidentiality of certain public records within their possession.
- Records custodians must ensure that all of their public records are accessible to members of the general public, during regular business hours.
- All records pertaining to associations and non-profit corporations within the state of Tennesse are considered public records under the law.
When can a public records access request be denied under the TPRA?
On the other end of the spectrum, the Tennessee Public Records Act sets forth various circumstances under which a records custodian can deny a requestor from accessing the public records in the possession of the said custodian. For example, while the law mandates that all records maintained by a government agency within the state are to be accessible to the general public, this accessibility is contingent upon a requestor paying any applicable fees regarding their particular request. Furthermore, records custodians are not obligated to provide non-citizens of the state of Tennessee with access to their public records. Alternatively, records custodians are also permitted to deny a requestor from accessing public records that are exempt from disclosure under the law. To this point, some examples of such exemptions include:
- Home and cellular telephone numbers.
- Social security numbers.
- Drivers license information.
- Emergency contact information.
- Residential information.
- Bank account information.
- Educational records.
- Medical records.
Confidential information and redaction
While the sections of the TPRA designate certain forms of information to be confidential, the law also states that such sections do not preclude a records custodian from providing members of the public with access to records that contain such information. With this being said, automatic redaction software can be used to remove exempt information from records that also contain publicly accessible information. For instance, these software programs could be used to automatically redact social security numbers and medical records, giving records custodians the peace of mind that they will be able to comply with the provisions of the TPRA with respect to every aspect of the law.
While all 50 states within the U.S. have enacted some form of legislation that enables citizens of said states to request access to a wide range of public and government records, the specifics of these laws vary by region. As such, the Tennessee Public Records Act governs the manner in which citizens of the state can access the public records of municipal and state government agencies, in an effort to promote the principles of transparency and accountability. In this way, residents of the state have a legal mechanism to exercise their political power.