It can be scary making an open records request. You might wonder, what will they think of me making this request? Do I have a right to see this information? You might even find yourself confused about where to send the request and to whom to address it. This article is by no means an exhaustive analysis of open records requests, but is meant to empower you with some basic information to help simplify the process and put your mind at ease. Just keep in mind, the worst thing that can happen is they say “no.”
This article relies heavily on the FAQs page of the Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury, Office of Open Records Counsel—a very useful site that you should visit—and my own experience in submitting an open records request. It is also specific to Tennessee.
We commonly refer to all requests for public records as “freedom of information requests” or “FOIA requests” based on the federal law, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), 5 U.S.C. § 552. FOIA refers specifically to the United States government, while each state has its own law dealing with state and local governments. In Tennessee, it’s called the “Tennessee Open Records Act.” As defined by Tennessee law, public records are “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” (Tenn. Code Ann. Section 10-7-503(a)(1)).
Who can request records?
The Tennessee Public Records Act provides the right to any citizen of Tennessee to inspect public records. This does not prohibit nonresidents of Tennessee from accessing Tennessee public records, but the law only protects access for Tennessee citizens. The law allows a records custodian to require you to provide identification in order to inspect or receive copies of public records.
Great, but what will it cost me?
Generally speaking, there is no fee associated with inspecting public records, but there are limited exceptions. The law specifically prohibits records custodians from assessing a “charge to view public records” unless the charge is required by law. The law allows the custodian to charge a fee for the labor and staff time involved in producing requested copies. The law also allows for a governmental entity to charge 15 cents per page for black and white copies and 50 cents per page for color copies. If you want the copies mailed to you, you’ll have to pay for the postage.
Awesome, but who do I even ask about records?
Call or check an organization's website for the appropriate contact information. Larger departments or organizations may have legal counsel that handle open records requests, but generally you may need to ask who handles requests or simply submit your request to an administrator. You might find yourself doing some guessing at this point; when I submitted an open records request to a local school system, I sent it to the superintendent’s office who forwarded it to their lawyer. The lawyer’s contact information was not listed on the school’s contact page. Speaking of the actual request, the law allows a citizen to make a request to view records in writing (including email), in person, or by phone, but a custodian may require a written request for copies of records.
Keep in mind that governmental organizations produce and store a lot of data and information. When you make a request, be as specific as you can about the time, date, format of the records (minutes from a meeting, email exchanges, etc.), a certain discussion topic, and any other details to help focus the request (See the Appendix for a sample open records request template). Apply your skills here as a librarian and think about how important a reference interview can be. Someone comes to you and says “I want all the books in the library about jazz music.” They probably don’t actually want all the books about jazz music, they might just need to write about an influential 20th century musician. You have to dig down to the core of what you want when you make a records request. If you want information from a specific meeting, or what school board members discussed about a topic via email, then ask for that in the request. Don’t just request “everything.”
It’s really that simple.
Gibson, F. and Fisher, D. (2015). Keys to open government: A guide to Tennessee’s open records and open meetings laws. Retrieved from http://tcog.info/files/2015/02/Keys-to-Open-Gov-Complete.pdf
Tennessee Coalition for Open Government. (n.d.). Sample Tennessee open records request. Retrieved from http://tcog.info/resources/sample-open-records-request/
Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury. (n.d.). Frequently asked questions. Retrieved from http://www.comptroller.tn.gov/openrecords/faq.asp#25
Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury. (n.d.). Tennessee Open Records Act. Retrieved from https://www.comptroller.tn.gov/openrecords/pdf/Open%20Records%20draft501.pdf
Open Records Request Letter Template (adapted from “Sample Tennessee Open Records Request”)
[City, ST ZIP Code]
[Name of Custodian of Records]
[City, ST ZIP Code]
Dear [custodian of records]:
Under the Tennessee Open Records Act, §10-7-503 et seq., I am requesting copies of public records that [Describe the records or information sought with enough detail for the public agency to respond. Be as specific as your knowledge of the available records will allow.]
If there are any fees for copying these records, please inform me if the cost will exceed $10. However, I would also like to request a waiver of all fees in that the disclosure of the requested information is in the public interest. This information is not being sought for commercial purposes.
The Tennessee Open Records Act requires a response time within seven (7) business days. If access to the records I am requesting will take longer than this amount of time, please contact me with information about when I might expect copies or the ability to inspect the requested records.
If you deny any or this entire request, please cite each specific exemption justifying the refusal to release the information and notify me of the appeal procedures available to me under the law.