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Becker v. The University of Tennessee

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  1. Freedom of Information

Case Number: 208439-1

Court: Chancery Court of Knox County, Tennessee, for the Sixth Judicial District at Knoxville

Client: John Becker

Petition for Access to Public Records Filed: March 14, 2024

Background: In August 2022, John Becker, a journalist for WBIR-TV in Knoxville, submitted a public records request to the University of Tennessee seeking access to all records received by seven university administrators from Oak Ridge National Laboratory or UT-Battelle LLC. UT-Battelle, which is half-owned by the University of Tennessee, administers and operates the laboratory, which is the U.S. Department of Energy’s largest science and technology energy lab.

Becker’s request, which also sought operating agreements concerning the formation and operation of UT-Battelle, was filed as part of an effort to learn the salaries of top leaders at ORNL.

The university turned over some responsive documents but withheld in full or in part many other records, including the operating agreements, citing a variety of reasons. University officials claimed that some records were protected from disclosure because they were in draft form or contained trade secrets. They also claimed that other records could be shielded from public release under purported exemptions that don’t appear in the Tennessee Public Records Act.

In a letter to the university on behalf of Becker, Paul McAdoo, the Reporters Committee’s Local Legal Initiative for Tennessee, challenged university officials’ basis for withholding large swaths of the requested records. In response, university officials continued to argue that many of the records did not have to be released. However, they did turn over redacted versions of two operating agreements, noting that the redactions were made to protect trade secrets.

On behalf of Becker, McAdoo filed this lawsuit against the University of Tennessee, alleging that the university improperly withheld and redacted public records. The lawsuit asks the Knox County Chancery Court to hold that the requested records are public under Tennessee law and to order the university to provide copies of them to Becker.

Quote: “The lawsuit stems from WBIR’s years long unsuccessful efforts to learn the top 10 salaries of leaders at ORNL,” WBIR wrote in a story about the public records lawsuit. “Becker and WBIR have for more than 18 months sought copies from UT of the unique operating agreements signed by the university and the Battelle Memorial Institute to run the national lab, which conducts research on such subjects as neutron science and produces isotopes for medicine and industry.”


2024-03-14: Petition for access to public records and to obtain judicial review of denial of access

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