SPECIAL REPORT: Tech Police questioned about open records policy

Obtaining police records is generally a straight forward and simple process. But students are quickly learning that this seemingly simple task is not so easy.I am a senior journalism student and have been assigned to report on campus crime each week. And for the second straight week, I have been denied access to view police reports during regular business hours.

My intentions were to go into the police office, read through the police reports and write about the most intriguing story. To my dismay, the employees of the police station claimed they couldn’t show me the reports unless the police chief was present.

“Many state open record laws, including Tennessee’s, allow requesters to make a simple oral request to the person that holds the records,” according to the Student Press Law Center. “In these cases, the state official must provide reasonable and prompt access to the requester during normal business hours.”

These rights of a journalist and members of the public come from The Freedom of Information Act. This was passed so that people can keep tabs on what government is doing. It’s based on the fundamental belief that people do not, and should not, give their government the right to decide what the people should or should not know.

The laws especially apply to institutions of higher education, such as Tech. The students who have been assigned to report on campus crime agree this has been an ongoing issue for too long.

Mike Ford, a senior journalism student, was assigned to report on campus crime last semester and says they treated him the same way.

“When I covered the police beat, I had the same problems,” Ford said. “I told them it was against the law to withhold the reports, but that didn’t stop them from doing it.”

The reason the police department cited as to why they refused to release the police reports was that the police chief was not present, and that she is the only person allowed to review the police reports.

The consensus among students, journalists and professors is they feel disrespected to a degree. Although staff writers aren’t getting paid to report on issues around campus, they still take the job and profession seriously.

I can’t understand what’s taking place here,” Dr. Earl R. Hutchison, professor emeritus of journalism, said. “You and the entire university community are owed a complete explanation for this withholding of information from them.”

Any journalism student at Tech receives the Oracle style booklet, containing guidelines and bits of helpful information. On the opening page of the booklet there is a note to students that was written by professors Stubblefield and Hutchison at the request of the University president at the time.

“All University media students gathering news and information for stories and editorials, students writing for the newspaper, and students composing advertisements for the newspaper should have the same freedom of operation as their counterparts in the journalism profession,” the note says.

According to Tech’s Office of Open Records Counsel, “If the records are readily available and there is no need to review and redact, then the records should be made available as ‘promptly’ as possible. However, if it is not ‘practicable’ for the records to be made ‘promptly’ available, the records custodian is required to take one of three actions within seven business days: make the records available to the requestor, deny the request in writing with the basis of the denial included, or provide the requestor a written explanation of how long it will take to produce the request.”

Therefore, the question at hand is this: Is the seven business-day period allotted by the Tech council the “reasonable and prompt” time period the Tennessee Open Records Act mandates?