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Associated Press v. Tennessee Registry of Election Finance

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  1. Local Legal Initiative

Case Number: 20-0404-IV

Court: Chancery Court of Tennessee for the Twentieth Judicial District at Nashville

Clients: Associated Press and its reporter Kimberlee Kruesi; Chattanooga Publishing Company; Gannett GP Media, Inc. and its vice president and editor Michael Anastasi; Gould Enterprises, Inc.; Meredith Corporation and its chief investigative reporter Jeremy Finley; Memphis Fourth Estate, Inc.; Scripps Media, Inc. and its investigative reporter Ben Hall; TEGNA, Inc. and its news directors Lisa Lovell and Jeremy Campbell; the Tennessee Association of Broadcasters; the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, Inc.; and the Tennessee Press Association

Complaint Filed: April 29, 2020

Background: On April 1, 2020, the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance, the agency responsible for enforcing campaign finance laws, voted secretly by email to approve a $22,000 settlement offer made by a state lawmaker to resolve outstanding civil penalties levied by the Registry.

The public was only notified that the email vote took place and that the official tally approved the settlement 4-2. The emails Registry members sent to the agency’s director casting their votes were not made available to the public. Nor were other details about the vote, including who moved to accept the settlement and who seconded the motion.

On behalf of the Associated Press and other news outlets, Reporters Committee attorneys filed a complaint arguing that the email vote violated the Tennessee Open Meetings Act.

Quote: “The Open Meetings Act plainly states — and courts in Tennessee have upheld — that all votes by a government body must be public, and that secret votes, including by electronic communications such as email, must not be used to decide public business,” said Paul McAdoo, the Local Legal Initiative staff attorney based in Tennessee. “While government officials implement necessary changes in how they conduct business during the pandemic consistent with Governor Lee’s executive order, they must still uphold both the letter and the spirit of Tennessee’s transparency laws.”

Update: In September 2020, Davidson County Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle ruled that the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance violated the state’s Open Meetings Act when it secretly voted by email to significantly reduce fines levied against a state lawmaker.

Filings:

2020-04-29: Original Complaint

2020-10-08: Final judgment in favor of plaintiffs