For months last year, I kept asking members of the Coalition for Open Government and the Tennessee Press Association if they knew anything about the history of the Tennessee Public Records Act of 1957.
I found details about the TPRA and what it covered, but little in the way of context until I visited the Tennessee State Library and Archives and began reading about who developed the legislation and how it was enacted. And, yes, TPA was the driving force behind it.
During the summer convention of 1956, TPA began an ambitious campaign to make state and local government records and meetings more accessible to citizens.
The effort was lead by Carl A. Jones, then publisher of the Johnson City Press-Chronicle and incoming TPA president, and Coleman Harwell, editor of The Nashville Tennessean and chairman of the organization’s FOI Committee.
TPA developed separate comprehensive legislative packages for public records and open meetings to be presented in the 80th General Assembly in 1957. Work on the legislative program was approved at TPA’s winter meeting in January.
In his January 1957 “Your Presiding Reporter” column in The Tennessee Press, Jones wrote, “The (legislative) program includes two bills on freedom of information, or as we prefer to call them, bills protecting the people’s right to know. One calls for meetings of all boards to be open to the public and the other deals with the records being kept open for public inspection.”
Jones followed with an admonition to his fellow TPA members that the “important part about the ‘right to know’ bills is they mean nothing unless we, the newspaper people of Tennessee, get out and cover the meetings and report the records which are open to inspection.
“The laws will not help anyone if they are not followed up by you and me. Actually the bills point up the responsibility of the newspapers and the newspaper reporters, editors and publishers, yes YOU AND ME AND OUR STAFFS, to cover every meeting in our respective communities.”
The legislative program also included a uniform legal advertising rate bill, which would permit charges not to exceed other classified display rates, and a request to the legislature to study election laws to improve the voting process statewide.
If there was any complacency among TPA members about freedom of information, the keynote speaker at the winter convention removed all doubt about the necessity of passing the public records and open meetings legislation.
V.M. “Red” News, then managing editor of the Tampa Tribune (Fla.) and a national leader in FOI issues, related the history of the Bill of Rights against a backdrop of crisis after crisis in recent history when President Harry Truman and then President Dwight Eisenhower successively restricted the flow of information in the name of national security.
TPA went forward with its package but the going was tough as Jones related in the April issue of The Tennessee Press. In the middle of writing his monthly column, he literally had to drop everything and drive to Nashville to save the public records legislation.
“An effort is being made to save the bill without having it emasculated or made ineffective” by the passage of a large number of bills that would have created special exceptions to the bill, he wrote.
“A rush meeting is being called to confer with these department heads and members of your committee and officers,” Jones wrote. “It is expected we will have an opportunity to discuss our views with the governor and members of his cabinet.”
The efforts of Jones and his fellow TPA colleagues paid off as he related in his column the following month.
“Our ‘open records’ bill was enacted after our committee agreed to amendments which they thought to be in the public’s interest,” he wrote.
The open meetings bill failed after a public hearing when TPA recommended doing away with executive sessions. Legislators mounted an attack that would have rendered the open meetings legislation toothless. So TPA withdrew the legislation. It would take another 17 years before Tennessee’s Sunshine Law was passed.
The Tennessee Public Records Act of 1957 was signed into law by Gov. Frank Clement on March 22.
Ironically, the first test of the TPRA came less than four months later, when the “State Pardons and Parole Board declined to release the names of persons who signed a petition for a Johnson City man serving a long prison term for murder,” according to The Tennessee Press.
Jones quickly protested the board’s decision under provisions of the new law. When Gov. Clement read about the situation in The Nashville Tennessean, he ordered the board to release the names.
By the way, you should also know the long-standing motto of the Johnson City Press-Chronicle, now just Johnson City Press, remains, “What the people don’t know will hurt them.”
Kent Flanagan is executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government. He can be reached by phone at (615) 957-2825 or by email at email@example.com. For more information on Sunshine Week visit here.