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ACLU, attorney general spar over residency requirement

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  1. Freedom of Information
Tennessee’s ACLU chapter is proclaiming victory in its dispute of a requirement that only residents of the state can make…

Tennessee’s ACLU chapter is proclaiming victory in its dispute of a requirement that only residents of the state can make public records requests there.

Even so, the state attorney general’s office insisted Thursday there was in fact no change in policy or the law’s requirements.

The local American Civil Liberties Union chapter had threatened to sue the state over the constitutionality of the residency requirement. A freelance journalist based in Massachusetts, Joseph Rosenbloom, filed a request in Tennessee for access to records about Martin Luther King Jr., according to the ACLU. The request was denied under the Tennessee Public Records Act, which has always required that requesters be state residents.

The ACLU chapter had planned to argue the requirement was unconstitutional, based on the state’s response to Rosenbloom.

However, Sharon Curtis Flair, the communications director for the attorney general, said in an e-mail statement in response to questions about the ACLU announcement: “There is no change in the public records law or its enforcement. The request by Mr. Rosenbloom was denied. But once he began working through a Tennessee lawyer, we no longer had any basis to object.”

In any case, it appears that once an out-of-state requester finds an attorney licensed in Tennessee to represent him, his requests will be processed.

“The right to access public documents is a critical part of the democratic process because it opens the way for journalists to keep the public informed about matters of public interest,” Rosenbloom said in the ACLU press release. “When a state excludes non-citizens from access, it arbitrarily blocks that process. I am delighted that the AG’s Office has reversed its decision and that I can get on with my work.”

A handful of other states have similar residency requirements, but in 2006 a federal appeals court said Delaware’s law, which was similar to Tennessee’s, was unconstitutional.

Pennsylvania recently removed a residency requirement from its open records statute. Litigation is underway in Virginia challenging a similar law.