Advocates seek change in open records policies

Open records advocates want Tech’s Board of Trustees to change the current public records policy to allow out-of-state students equal access to information. 

The current proposed policy requires requestors to prove they are a Tennessee citizen by showing a valid driver’s license or “alternative acceptable form of identification” in order to inspect or receive copies of public records. 

A request can be denied access if the person does not present evidence of Tennessee citizenship. That rule prevents Tech students from other states or countries from obtaining public records.

University officials conducted a public hearing at Tech on Feb. 1 seeking public opinion as a part of the approval process.  Four people attending the hearing: a Cookeville newspaper reporter, a journalism instructor and two students. 

Chief communications officer Karen Lykins, who conducted the hearing, received input from two people who asked the board to allow students to show their school identification instead of a driver’s license. 

Deborah Fisher, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government based in Nashville, submitted a two-page written comment saying the change would improve compliance with the spirit and letter of the law.

“We strongly urge you to consider allowing a resident to affirm their residency through additional specified ways,” Fisher said. “We have found that the requirement of a driver’s license can be a hurdle that either delays or blocks access to public records.”

Tech journalism instructor Vanessa Curry voiced her support for Fisher’s suggestions and said a student newspaper has experienced difficulty in obtaining records because of the license requirement. 

“This requirement has been a particular hinderance to The Oracle in the past, because we have had student editors who are foreign students or who do not have a Tennessee driver’s license because they come from another state,” Curry said. 

The board is scheduled to vote on the school’s proposed public record policy March 21. 

Curry and three Tech journalism students attended the Tennessee Press Association meeting in Nashville on Feb. 7 in which Gov. Bill Lee addressed the need to review the state’s open record and open meeting laws.

Lee said the state’s long list of exemptions from the laws especially need a second look.

“It’s not just about access but making it easier to have access and I am committed to doing that,” Curry quoted Lee as telling a room full of student and professional journalists.