Note: This page covers information specific to Tennessee. For general information concerning access to government records see the Access to Government Records section of this guide.
See the note below regarding links to statutory provisions in this article.
Tennessee's public record law (Tenn. Code Ann. §§ 10-7-101 to 10-7-702) has a very broad definition of what is "public," but under Tenn. Code Ann. § 10-7-503(a)(2)(A) applies only to requests by "any citizen of this state." If you are not in Tennessee but need public records in the state, you should find someone in the state to make requests for you.
Tennessee also has an extensive list of "confidential" information that is exempt from disclosure, so before making a request, make sure you are not requesting something that is protected in order to save yourself time.
You do not have to declare your reason for wanting to access records, with the exception of certain records related to law enforcement (see below).
What Records Are Covered in Tennessee
What Government Bodies Are Covered
The following departments are subject to the open records law: any legislative body; any common law, circuit, criminal or chancery court; register's books; surveyor's books; entry taker's books; any other records required by law to be maintained.
What Types of Records Can Be Requested
Any document, paper, record or book of a government body, or any pleading or other paper filed in a court, is considered a public record.
Tennessee has numerous very specific exemptions from its open records, set forth in Tenn. Code Ann. § 10-7-504. You should review the full list before requesting records. These exemptions are based upon confidentiality; therefore, the subject of the record can waive this confidentiality and release the record.
For example, the following records and information are exempt from disclosure:
- Medical records, student records, and personal identifying information of state employees
- Any identifying information within reports maintained by the departments of corrections and/or probation and parole concerning the status of any criminal proceeding or convicted felon
Also, any personal information about current or former public employees (including law enforcement) is protected. That information includes:
- Home and cell phone numbers
- Bank accounts, health savings accounts, retirement accounts
- Social security number
- Residential address information
- Driver's license information unless driving is part of the job description
- Any of the above information related to an employee's immediate family or household members
Particular care is needed when requesting a law enforcement officer's personnel files. Such records are presumptively open, but special rules and procedures apply. You must provide your name, address, business telephone number and home telephone number, driver's license number or other identification when you request the record, and the date you inspected the records. The custodian must record this information and give it to the officer under Tenn. Code Ann. § 10-7-503(c)(1)-(3).
The statute also defines a special category of "personal information" of law enforcement officers that receives special protection. § 10-7-504(g). This personal information includes an officer's residential address, phone numbers and place of employment, as well as the names, work addresses, and phone numbers of the officer's immediate family, and name, location and phone number of any school or daycare where the officer's spouse or child is enrolled.
This personal information may ordinarily be redacted if the chief law enforcement officer (CLEO) or his designee determine, in their discretion, that there is a reason not to disclose. However, if the request is for a professional, business, or official purpose, the CLEO does not have unfettered discretion. Rather, he or she must consider the specific circumstances of the request, and follow a procedure detailed in the statute:
(1) If the CLEO does not find a reason to withhold personal information in response to a request for a professional, business, or official purpose, the CLEO must disclose that information, but may still withhold a narrower category of information that is confidential under § 10-7-504(f).
(2) If the CLEO does find a reason to withhold subsection personal information in response to a request for a professional, business, or official purpose, the CLEO may not automatically withhold that information; rather, the CLEO must notify the law enforcement officer in question of the request and give the officer an opportunity to be heard and to oppose the request. Presumably, if the officer does not oppose the release, the information must be disclosed.
Regardless of the foregoing, the CLEO may redact/withhold information that could be used to identify or to locate an officer working undercover.
It is not clear if newsgathering constitutes a "professional, business, or official purpose" because the statute does not define the phrase, and there is no case law clarifying the statute. However, one commentator has suggested that this phrase refers to inspection of the officer's personnel file for any "employment, business or professional purpose in connection with an official investigation."
If you are claiming a professional, business or official purpose, you must include in your open records request the following information: your business address, business phone number and e-mail address, along with the name, contact information and e-mail of a supervisor. If the CLEO denies the request, he or she must give a reason, in writing, within 2 business days. You have the right to judicial review of this denial
An otherwise public record may not be withheld in its entirety just because a portion of the information contained in the record is exempt from disclosure. Therefore, if an agency tells you that a portion of a record is confidential, you may have a right to request redaction of that portion and release of the remainder. The law also does not preclude any individual from giving consent to their confidential information being disclosed.
How to Request Records in Tennessee
Making the requestThe custodian of a record can ask that a records request be in writing, and can also require photo identification that includes the requester's address. Be ready to be asked for both. For certain law enforcement records, you will have to state if you have a professional, business or official purpose.
Fulfilling the RequestYou should be able to inspect all records during business hours pursuant to Tenn. Code Ann. § 10-7-503. However, if it is not practical for the record to be promptly available, the custodian must, within 7 business days, make it available or else deny access and give you a reason. If it will take longer than 7 days, he may provide a response with the time he needs to produce the record.
A government entity does not have to sort through files to comply with a request. If you are requesting extensive records, be ready to go through them yourself.
No public official can be found liable for releasing records or for any damages that are caused as a result of release.
If you have questions about the state's open meetings law, you can use educational programs and materials that the Office of Open Records Counsel must make available to you.
PaymentThe custodian cannot charge you for just viewing the records where they are kept. County officials may provide electronic access or remote access to records, but also may charge users a reasonable access fee.
You have a right to copy the record, but the custodian can make reasonable rules regarding copying. The county records commission has the power to establish fees for making copies of records.
If you want a copy of a record that requires reproducing of a computer-generated map or some other geographic data that has some commercial value and was created with public funds, then under Tenn. Code Ann. § 10-7-506, the agency can impose a reasonable fee for its reproduction, in addition to an "additional fee." "Additional fees" may include: labor costs; costs in design of the content contained in the record; development testing and training for whatever content is in the record; and costs necessary to ensure accuracy of the record. This additional fee is not to be levied on individuals who access the record for themselves. Newsgatherers can only be charged for the cost of copying.
What Are Your Remedies in Tennessee?Under Tenn. Code Ann. § 10-7-505, if you are a citizen of Tennessee who has been denied access to public records, you can petition for judicial review in the chancery court or circuit court in the county where the records are kept. If you sue, under Tenn. Code Ann. § 28-3-110 you must do so within ten years of being denied access, though you are probably better served to file suit within a year or less.
The court has full injunctive remedies to secure the purposes and intentions of the open records law. The act is to be construed so as to give the "fullest possible public access."
If the court finds in your favor, it must make the records available unless the government appeals and the court certifies a substantial legal issue that an appellate court must resolve.
In addition, if the court finds that the agency willfully refused to disclose a public record, it may assess all reasonable costs, including attorney fees against the agency.
Additionally, refer to our section on Finding Legal Help for more information on how to get legal assistance to help you assess the merits of a potential lawsuit.
NOTE: The Tennessee Code is currently published by LexisNexis; all hyperlinks to statutes in this article will direct you to the LexisNexis web site. Because the LexisNexis site does not permit linking to individual statutes, you will need to find the text of the statute you are looking for using the numbers assigned to the statute. The first number in the statute is the Title, the second number is the Chapter, and the third number is the specific Section (the first digit of the Section number also represents the "Part" of the statute, so Section 101 will be in Part 1). If you are interested, for example, in § 10-7-101 (that is, Title 10, Chapter 7, Section 101), after you click the link you can access the statute as follows:
- Agree to the terms of service;
- Scroll down to "Title 10" on the list that appears and click on the plus emblem next to "Title 10" in order to expand the entry for that Title;
- Scroll down within Title 10 to "Chapter 7" for public records and click on the plus emblem to expand that Chapter;
- Scroll down within Chapter 7 to "Part 1" and click on the plus emblem to expand that Part; and
- Click on the link provided for the specific Section in which you are interested.