Note: This page covers information specific to Tennessee. For general information concerning access to government meetings see the Access to Government Meetings section of this guide.
See the note below regarding links to statutory provisions in this article.
You have a right under Tennessee public meetings law, Tenn. Code Ann. § 8-44-101 through § 8-44-111, to attend any meeting held by a governing body where a quorum of members is required to make a decision, except where otherwise provided in the state constitution.
What Meetings are Covered?
What Government Bodies Are Covered?All public bodies are subject to the public meetings law. An agency is considered a public body if it has the power to decide policy or recommend actions to another entity that either decides policy or makes similar recommendations of its own. You also have a right to attend meetings of boards of nonprofits, if they:
- Contract with a state agency to receive public grants, dues, or fees that make up at least 30% of their income, or
- Are authorized by the state to act on behalf of a city or county, unless the county has 400,000 people or more.
You also can attend meetings of telephone cooperatives as part of the Telephone Cooperative Transparency Act of 2011.
What is a Meeting?
A meeting is defined as a quorum of members gathering to make a decision. Statutes that govern the individual public body will define what constitutes a quorum for that body, although the law usually requires a majority of any governing board. For example, a quorum for any county governing body is defined in Tenn. Code Ann. § 5-5-108 as a majority of the members of the county legislative body, and a quorum for city commissioners is defined as a majority of the members of the board of commissioners under Tenn. Code Ann. § 6-20-210.
Public agencies can communicate electronically, which includes posting in an online forum, but electronic communications posted in a forum will not substitute for a public meeting. If the agency communicates through a forum, you have a right to access that forum and to have notice of the use of a forum.
Members can participate electronically so long as there is a physical quorum present at the location mentioned in the meeting notice.
What Are Your Rights?
You have a right to get minutes of a meeting, to attend the meeting, and to have the public officials vote in public even if they have had discussions in executive session. You also have a right to hear everything at the meeting, so if the members don't have adequate microphones or sound, you should say something about it.
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.
If a public body has a meeting that is scheduled by law, then it has to give you notice that is "adequate" under § 8-44-103. "Adequacy" is not defined in the statute. However, the Supreme Court of Tennessee in Memphis Publishing Co. v. City of Memphis, 513 S.W.2d 511 (1974) stated as a general rule that "adequate public notice" would be determined based on the totality of the circumstances — a phrase that refers to all the facts and circumstances in the specific situation. Notice could take the form of a web site announcement, a calendar posting, or some other form, so it would be wise to inquire how the particular public agency complies with this section.
Because what notice is sufficient will vary, you should check the web site of any public body frequently or consult with the agency to find out when mandated meetings are scheduled. The statute or charter creating the public body will likely provide a time frame for giving proper notice of meetings, so be sure to refer to this document.
If the public body has a special meeting, meaning one that is not previously scheduled by law (i.e., where the time of the meeting is set forth by statute, regulation or ordinance), the public body must still give "adequate" notice.
Minutes, Recordings, and DocumentsYou can inspect meeting minutes, which must be recorded and made available promptly after the meeting. The meetings must at least include a record of who attended the meeting and any motions, proposals and resolutions that were discussed, along with any votes.
An Exception: Closed Meetings or SessionsYou don't have a right to attend portions of meetings where the public body will discuss proprietary information or trade secrets. The constitution allows for state lawmakers to decide whether they should meet in secret (sometimes called an "executive session"). If the public body does meet in executive session, they must still vote in public.
What Are Your Remedies If You Are Denied Access?If you've been denied access to a public meeting, you can seek relief in the courts. The courts have the power to enforce the open meetings law, which can include ordering the agency to comply and forbidding them from violating the act any further. If you sue, you must do so within ten years of the violation, although you are probably better served to file suit within a year or less.
If a court forbids the agency from violating the act, the judge must order the agency to write to the court twice a year to show they are complying with the open meetings law. The court can void any action taken in violation of the act, except for action affecting the agency's public debt.
The statute says nothing about repaying costs or attorney fees if you file suit, so be ready to take on the expenses of filing a suit.
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 against the agency.
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 § 8-44-101 (that is, Title 8, Chapter 44, Section 101), after you click the link you can access the statute as follows:
- Agree to the terms of service;
- Scroll down to "Title 8" on the list that appears and click on the plus emblem next to "Title 8" in order to expand the entry for that Title;
- Scroll down within Title 8 to "Chapter 44" for public meetings and click on the plus emblem to expand that Chapter;
- Scroll down within Chapter 44 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.