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Court declines to find public right of access to assembly meetings

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  1. Freedom of Information

    NMU         TENNESSEE         Freedom of Information         Jan 24, 2001    

Court declines to find public right of access to assembly meetings

  • The state legislature did not intend to subject its own meetings to the open meetings law, a state court of appeals ruled.

When the state legislature wrote the open meetings laws they did not intend it to apply to their meetings, a state court of appeals ruled on Jan. 11.

Despite an unfavorable media ruling by the Tennessee Court of Appeals, a concurring opinion made it clear that the ruling is not an endorsement of the Tennessee General Assembly’s continued practice of meeting in secret to discuss pending legislation.

A Tennesseean, Mark Mayhew, brought a lawsuit against the General Assembly seeking to have the court declare that the body’s “habitual and willful resort to secrecy” in deliberating about legislation violated the state open records laws, the state constitution and the United States Constitution. Mayhew was later joined by the Nashville Scene, Nashville, Lyle Media, Inc., Tennessee Press Association, Middle Tennessee Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, Tennessee Associated Press Managing Editors and 13 other newspapers.

On Jan. 11, the court of appeals dismissed the plaintiffs’ claims. In a concurring opinion, Judge William C. Koch detailed the persistent closure of the media and public from the assembly’s deliberations. The judge emphasized that the opinion of the court “should not be misconstrued as an endorsement” of such action nor was it a determination that the continued closure was good public policy.

The court determined that the open records law did not apply to the General Assembly because it is not specifically mentioned in the statute. To support this position, the appeals court examined the legislative history of the Tennessee open records law and found no “indication that the Legislature intended to bind itself to the provisions of the law.”

The court also found there was no requirement in the state constitution requiring the assembly to conduct its meetings in public. In fact two sections of the constitution grant the assembly the discretion to perform its duties in secret when it “ought to be” or the “welfare of the state” requires such. The court noted that this discretion given the assembly by the constitution made the issue a political one and, therefore, not one that the judiciary could review.

Mayhew and the other plaintiffs argued that language in the state constitution that grants citizens the right to use the printing press to “examine the proceedings of the legislature” guarantees a right of access to the meetings of the assembly. The court disagreed with this argument, construing the language literally to only grant a right to “use the printing press to examine the proceedings of the Legislature or any other branch of government.”

The court also rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that the First Amendment prohibits the state legislature from closing access to its meetings. The court noted that the U. S. Supreme Court has found an access right to criminal trials implicit in the First Amendment because criminal trials have traditionally been open to the public. However, because the appeals court found no evidence that Tennessee legislative bodies have traditionally been open to the public, the court did not find the same right of access to the meetings.

(Mayhew v. Wilder; Counsel: George E. Barrett, Barrett, Johnston and Parsley, Nashville, Tenn.) CC

© 2001 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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