Some Tennessee legislators attempting to make even more official records off limits to the public

Some Tennessee legislators attempting to make even more official records off limits to the public

February 17th, 2019 by Rosana Hughes in Local Regional News

A man walks through the hall outside the House and Senate chambers on Jan. 7 in Nashville.

Photo by Mark Humphrey

As Tennessee lawmakers, news organizations and open government advocates try to reduce the types of government records exempted from Tennessee's public disclosure laws, some legislators hope to make even more official records off limits to the public.

Proponents argue their legislation is intended to protect personal privacy, but open government advocates warn limiting the public's right to know impacts their ability to understand what is happening in their communities and hold government accountable.

One of the bills would make 911 calls confidential, effectively removing them from public record. Another would limit the amount of information included in motor vehicle accident reports.

911 call records

House Bill 335 and Senate Bill 386 propose that 911 calls, transmissions, and recordings of any emergency communications should only be used for "public safety purposes and as necessary for law enforcement, fire, medical, rescue, dispatching, or other emergency services."

Rep. Rick Tillis, R-Lewisburg, a former firefighter and EMT, filed the bill to protect callers, he said.

"A lot of times at the fire hall when we'd be watching the news and watching a sensationalized news story and a victim screaming bloody murder on the call, we just didn't think it was appropriate," he said.

Those calls, however, often expose problems or issues with investigations and help document emergency events that have a public interest, such as the Gatlinburg fires, according to the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government.

Just last month, Whitfield County, Georgia, 911 calls revealed that Judy Potts and her daughter, Krystal Spainhour, called 911 just days before their deaths to report a dispute between them and their suspected killer.

Also, access to 911 calls has helped keep government officials accountable, TCOG Executive Director Deborah Fisher said.

In 2017, the Dallas Morning News used 911 calls to reveal how severely understaffed the call center was, causing the city of Dallas to spend more than $400,000 in overtime just to get the phones answered.

Then in November 2018, the Knoxville News Sentinel used 911 calls to expose how the sheriff's office handled deputy-involved wrecks.

Another reason Tillis filed the bill, though, is to protect medical information.

"There is information in those calls sometimes that might release information that is of a personal nature that I feel that it should be protected," Tillis said.

However, medical information is protected under federal medical privacy laws, which is why that information typically is already redacted from recordings before release to the public.

Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, said he's waiting to hear the debates before deciding whether he will support the bill, but he thinks it may have some trouble passing.

"I'm not a big one on making things confidential that should be in the public domain," he said.

Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, also wants to hear the reasoning behind the proposed legislation, but he said the Senate has been working to increase transparency and increase open government.

A number of hearings took place over the summer and fall to talk about making information more available and easier to access, he said.

"We're trying to streamline the process and make it a more open dialogue on these exemptions to open record laws and have a process of review after five years on any new ones that come along," said Gardenhire, who was the Senate chairman of the joint committee on open records.

"There is that delicate balance that we, as representatives of the people, try and strike," Watson said. "What information needs to be readily and publicly available, what information should we not release, is often in the eyes of the beholder. All in all, we're trying to make improvement there."

Traffic accident reports

Motor vehicle accident reports are public record with the exception of some personal information.

Proposed legislation, HB 1107 and SB 1346, takes current laws a step further by defining "personally identifying information" to include names and contact information.

Rep. Jason Powell, D-Nashville, filed the bill after receiving numerous calls from constituents who started receiving phone calls, many of which came from pain clinics, after accidents.

"The constituents told me, quite frankly, it was getting to the point of so many phone calls that it was borderline harassment," he said.

He said many calls would come from spoofed numbers, and callers often would not disclose what company they were with.

There are already laws on the books against wrongful solicitation.

But "the enforcement of it is next to impossible," Powell said.

So with concerns over privacy "and people mining private data," Powell said he thinks it's time to amend the law.

On a local level, the Chattanooga Police Department agreed in 2017 to stop releasing traffic accident reports that include driver's license numbers, names or addresses unless it's to the person involved in the crash, their lawyer or their insurance company.

The agreement followed a lawsuit, filed by personal injury attorney Jay Kennamer, claiming a medical company called a crash victim on behalf of an out-of-town lawyer after the police department released unredacted reports.

Victims of the 2016 Woodmore school bus crash also experienced that kind of solicitation. They said out-of-town lawyers flocked to their homes after the deadly crash, hoping to sign them up for wrongful death lawsuits.

Contact staff writer Rosana Hughes at rhughes@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6327 with tips or story ideas. Follow her on Twitter @Hughes Rosana.