Public records should remain public

Published 8:59 am Monday, March 12, 2018

State Sen. Joey Hensley, a county medical examiner himself, put a stop on Wednesday to the effort to close autopsy records, noting that the state’s autopsy law already provided privacy of medical records of the deceased that are unrelated to the cause of the death.
Hensley, a physician and the county medical examiner for Lewis County, decided not to present a bill that would have closed autopsy reports. Hensley acknowledged to the Senate committee that autopsy reports are currently open as a public record. Autopsies can be ordered by county medical examiners in limited specific situations described in the law, such as in suspicious deaths, in which the state has deemed there is a public safety or public health interest. Such autopsies are paid for by the county governments.
Hensley, in explaining his action, said the bill was brought to him by the House sponsor (Rep. Eddie Smith, R-Knoxville) with concern over certain medical information that might become part of the public record. Earlier this week, state Rep. Smith, who said he sponsored the bill at the request of the Knox County Medical Examiner, said he would be amending the bill to only protect medical information about the patient included in the autopsy report that was not related to the cause of death.
However, the law already provides for such medical records to be confidential.
Public records should stay public. Sadly, some records requests are frivolous. That system needs to be fixed, but not abandoned. The Public Records Act is very important in our system of government.
News organizations are often the primary defenders and watchdogs regarding open government and public records. But everyone should be aware of laws that maintain open government and public records, and everyone should be vigilant about preserving them.
Much goes on in our government from the White House and Congress to city hall and the local courthouse that we don’t know about. As citizens, you and I have a right to know what is going on behind closed doors. Open government is a key element to a democratic government, and public records are a part of open government.
Tennessee has a Public Records Act that states all records created or received by local or state government as part of transacting official business are open for inspection unless they are otherwise made confidential by state law. That last part is problematic. The state’s Public Records Act has been eroded with exemptions for more than 350 types of records, according to a report earlier this year by the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government.
In recent years, there have been frequent efforts to further limit public access to government records. For instance, government entities in Tennessee can now charge fees, which can easily reach into the thousands of dollars, for filling requests for public records. More recently, there has been an effort to allow governments to charge citizens to merely inspect public records.
This is an issue that spreads concern far beyond news reporters to people such as history buffs and genealogists who rely on public records to conduct research.
As we recognize Sunshine Week March 11-17 in Tennessee, we encourage everyone to be guardians in the effort to preserve open government and public records. Your voices are critical to the fight.

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