We're accustomed to public agencies and institutions stonewalling us over public records requests. But the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine has taken stonewalling to another level with its refusal to turn over the necropsy (animal autopsy) report for Hank the chimpanzee.
A UT spokeswoman literally declined to release the necropsy report over HIPAA. Apparently, she thought the "P" in Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act stood for Primate.
Congress enacted HIPAA in 1996 to protect the medical records of human patients. And while chimpanzees are the closest human relative -- scientists in 2005 sequenced the genome of the chimpanzee and found that humans are 96 percent similar -- they are not afforded federally protected privacy.
Hank was the best-known denizen at the Chattanooga Zoo at Warner Park. For nearly all of his 42 years, he spent his days being gawked at by zoo visitors. There was nothing private about Hank's life.
His death last week was one of seven at the zoo in the past few weeks. It's important that the public know how Hank and the other animals died. And as reporter Pam Sohn reminded the UT spokeswoman last week, her college and the zoo are publicly funded entities subject to state open records laws.
Those laws are sometimes the only thing between you and government cover-ups and scandals. And each time the Tennessee General Assembly convenes, lawmakers and bureaucrats attempt to water them down. In 1984, Tennessee's Public Records Act had three exceptions; now those exemptions fill five pages, according to the Tennessee Press Association.
The Memphis Commercial Appeal reported last week that Chamber of Commerce officials from the state's largest cities are behind proposed legislation that would keep information about companies they are recruiting out of the public's hands.
The newspaper association rightly pledges to fight the proposed law and any others that represent an end-run around the public's right to know.
"People who seek to do business with the state need to understand that they are ... doing business with the people," said TPA general counsel Richard Hollow. "If they don't want to do business with the people and be governed by the rules, then don't do it. Go somewhere else. You can't pick and choose."
Hollow told the Memphis newspaper that one of the limitations of doing business with government is transparency. "That's the way government is intended to function. Live with it. Enjoy it," he said.
Another proposal -- pushed by officials from right here in Chattanooga -- would allow government entities to publish their public notices online instead of in communities' largest newspapers. The push comes despite government research that shows 1.5 million Tennessee residents don't have computers or Internet access.
Transparency, says Frank Gibson of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, is a word that looks good on politicians' campaign literature but quickly disappears after the election.
Citizens already have a deep and abiding distrust of politicians. Watering down public records laws is the exact opposite of the tack lawmakers should take.
J. Todd Foster is executive editor of the Chattanooga Times Free Press and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6472.