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Court finds broad right of access to computerized records

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  1. Freedom of Information
Court finds broad right of access to computerized records 11/30/98 TENNESSEE--In a groundbreaking decision, the state Supreme Court in mid-November…

Court finds broad right of access to computerized records

11/30/98

TENNESSEE–In a groundbreaking decision, the state Supreme Court in mid-November recognized a right of access to computerized government records even where the information is not maintained in the exact format requested.

Writing for the unanimous court, Chief Justice Riley Anderson stated that what constitutes a record is broadly defined by the state legislature and does not consist of a particular physical format or form. After considering numerous similar cases decided by other state high courts, Anderson concluded that allowing an agency to deny a request because the information did not exist in the required format would frustrate the purpose of the Public Records Act “at nearly every turn.”

“In our view, it makes little sense to implement computer systems that are faster and have massive capacity for storage, yet limit access to and dissemination of the material by emphasizing the physical format of a record,” he wrote.

The case arose when The Tennessean sought the names, addresses and phone numbers of the Nashville Electric Service’s customers. The request was refused on the grounds that the service did not maintain a single record containing the specific information sought. Although the information was available and a public record, it was contained in different portions of the service’s records, and the agency would have to reprogram its computers to retrieve it.

The trial court found that the service was required to disclose its records as requested. However, the intermediate appellate court differed, holding that the information did not meet the definition of a record.

In reversing the appellate court, the high court also allowed the electric company to charge fees to recover costs incurred in meeting the request. However, the high court denied the agency’s request to charge $86,400 to recover the cost of notifying its customers of the request by mail. The agency said it needed to notify its customers in order to protect their privacy and safety.

Actual costs incurred by the agency in disclosing the information are recoverable, the court wrote. However, it added that there is no statutory authority requiring payment of costs to implement the customer notification policy.

The court noted that issues arising from the application of the state Public Records Act were questions of first impression before that court and pointed to the potential broad application of its decision because of the increasing use of computerized technology to store public information. (The Tennessean v. Electric Power Bd. of Nashville; Media Counsel: Alfred Knight, Nashville)