Press Release from the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, Aug. 24, 2010:
ACLU-TN Fights to Open Memphis Records for the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network: Lawsuit Challenges Open Records Citizenship Requirement
NASHVILLE – The American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee (ACLU-TN) today filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging the constitutionality of the Tennessee Public Records Act’s citizenship requirement on behalf of Richard Jones, Midwest Director of the Reverend Al Sharpton’s National Action Network (NAN). Jones was denied access to public records regarding the granting of a government contract in Memphis because he is not a citizen of Tennessee.
“According to the Constitution, states cannot discriminate against residents of other states by preventing them from exercising basic rights. Denying access to public records based on one’s address not only violates the Constitution, it undermines government accountability,” said Edmund J. Schmidt III, ACLU-TN Cooperating Attorney. “We hope this lawsuit will help move Tennessee toward eliminating its unconstitutional open records citizenship requirement.”
Richard Jones is a civil rights advocate who lives in Solon, Ohio and who regularly makes open records requests as he investigates various activities throughout the country for NAN, which works in the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to promote a standard of justice and decency for all people, regardless of race, religion, national origin or gender. On May 10, 2010, Jones filed an open records request with the Public Record Coordinator for the City of Memphis, requesting a copy of the December 2008 winning bid for State Advocacy/State Lobbying Services.
The Public Record Coordinator’s office denied Jones’ request, informing him in an email, “Since it does not appear that you are a Tennessee resident, I must deny your request…” Mr. Jones was subsequently referred to the City Attorney’s office, which similarly stated, “This office denies all public record requests from any individual or entity outside the State of Tennessee.” Both offices cited the Tennessee Public Records Act (TPRA) in their denials. Since May 2009, when the Attorney General’s office agreed to waive the citizenship requirement in response to an ACLU-TN challenge, individual agencies have been given discretion in deciding whether or not to release records to people residing out of state.
“My goal in requesting this information is to build a database of government contracts for NAN to both analyze the awarding of government contracts by gender and race, and to help women and minorities understand how to construct winning bids,” said plaintiff Richard Jones. “It’s frustrating to have our efforts to ensure fairness in the bid process be subverted simply because I happen to live in another state.”
The TPRA included the citizenship requirement when it was first enacted in 1957. As recently as 2007, ACLU-TN, the Tennessee Coalition on Open Government and other public interest groups testified in front of the Open Records Sub-Committee of the Special Joint Committee on Open Records, explaining that the provision was a violation of the Privileges and Immunities Clause of the United States Constitution and urging that it be repealed. In 2008, when the Tennessee General Assembly amended the TPRA, they failed to repeal the citizenship provision, despite rulings in other states striking down similar provisions.
In May 2009, the Attorney General’s office agreed to release public records regarding the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to award-winning, Massachusetts-based freelance journalist Joseph Rosenbloom just hours before an ACLU-TN lawsuit was to be filed challenging the constitutionality of the citizenship requirement. The move signified a reversal of the AG’s long-held opinion that non-Tennessee citizens could be denied access to public records. However the State Legislature has yet to repeal the unconstitutional citizenship requirement.
The lawsuit, Jones v. Bredesen et al., was filed in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee. In addition to ACLU-TN Cooperating Attorney Edmund J. Schmidt III, Mr. Jones is represented by ACLU-TN Staff Attorney Tricia Herzfeld.
Other out-of-state residents who have found their access to public records in Tennessee denied are encouraged to contact the ACLU of Tennessee by phone at 615-320-7142 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A copy of the complaint can be viewed at http://www.aclu-tn.org/pdfs/Jones.pdf .