Attorney General Reverses Decision and Waives Open Records Citizenship Requirement

Affiliate: ACLU of Tennessee
May 14, 2009 12:00 am

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Award-Winning Out-of-State Journalist Denied Documents Related To Death Of Martin Luther King, Jr.

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
CONTACT: media@aclu.org

NASHVILLE – After denying an out-of-state journalist access to public records regarding the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the Attorney General’s (AG) office reversed its position just hours before an ACLU-TN lawsuit was to be filed on Tuesday challenging the constitutionality of the requirement. The AG’s Office had previously denied award-winning freelance journalist Joseph Rosenbloom access to the information on the grounds that he was not a Tennessee citizen and therefore did not have a right to the documents. The move signifies a reversal of the AG’s long-held opinion that non-Tennessee citizens could be denied access to public records.

“ACLU-TN applauds the AG’s office for reconsidering its position and recognizing that Tennessee citizenship should not be a requirement for accessing public documents,” said Hedy Weinberg, Executive Director of the ACLU of Tennessee. “We trust that the decision to make these documents available demonstrates the AG’s commitment to urge the State Legislature to repeal the unconstitutional citizenship requirement. Such a recommendation is vital to ensure that government agencies do not attempt to enforce it.”

Joseph Rosenbloom, an award-winning freelance journalist who lives in Newton, Massachusetts and who is working on a book about Dr. King, filed a public records request with the Attorney General’s Office in March asking for all documents regarding King’s activities in Memphis in February and March of 1968, and all documents created between April and December of 1968 related to the subsequent investigation of James Earl Ray for the murder of King.

The Attorney General’s Office denied Rosenbloom’s requests, informing him in a letter dated April 20, 2009 that, “it does not appear that you are a citizen of Tennessee and, therefore, we are not required to respond to your request on that basis.” Rosenbloom also was informed that his requests were being denied under a provision of the Tennessee Public Records Act (TPRA) that excludes from public inspection records which “relate to any pending or contemplated legal or administrative proceedings” – despite the fact that King’s murder occurred over 40 years ago.

“My goal in writing this book is to provide additional insights into the circumstances surrounding Dr. King’s murder and the investigation of the man who was convicted of killing him,” said Rosenbloom, whose work has earned him a Peabody Award and an Emmy Award, among others. “Dr. King’s death remains one of the defining moments in our nation’s history, and it was extremely frustrating to be denied information simply because I don’t happen to live in Tennessee.”

After Rosenbloom’s request was denied twice by the AG’s Office, ACLU-TN prepared the lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the TPRA’s provision restricting non-Tennessee citizens from accessing public records. Within hours of being notified by ACLU-TN Cooperating Attorney Edmund Schmidt that the lawsuit would be filed, AG Senior Counsel Janet Kleinfelter said she would provide the requested documents. This decision was an abrupt departure from the AG Office’s repeated defense of the constitutionality of the citizenship requirement, despite rulings in other states striking down similar provisions.

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 (TCOG) 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.

“The right to access public documents is a critical part of the democratic process because it opens the way for journalists to keep the public informed about matters of public interest,” said Rosenbloom. “When a state excludes non-citizens from access, it arbitrarily blocks that process. I am delighted that the AG’s Office has reversed its decision and that I can get on with my work.”

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 aclutn@aclu-tn.org.

A copy of the Attorney General’s letter denying Rosenbloom’s public records request is available at: www.aclu-tn.org/pdfs/rosenbloomltr.pdf

A copy of the Attorney General’s subsequent letter offering the documents to Rosenbloom is available at: www.aclu-tn.org/pdfs/rosenbloomltr2.pdf

Additional information about the ACLU of Tennessee is available at www.aclu-tn.org

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