People and the Press
For a couple of weeks now there seems to be a conflict between the Tennessee legislature and the public. Without getting into a debate about civil behavior and civil liberty, it is important to know that Tennessee Sunshine Laws allow the public to attend government meetings and hearings, and then talk about what goes on there.
The Tennessee law is so strong, it makes invalid any action taken at closed government meetings.
By way of disclaimer, issues about the actual conduct of spectators and legislators are not relevant here. We’re only concerned about what the law says about access to the process of government.
Many people seem to understand the right of the press to attend these government meetings, but in many cases they are missing one important point: the Tennessee Sunshine Law, indeed the First Amendment to the Constitution, applies not just to the press, but to the public in general.
Too often, it seems, is the idea the press and the public are separate entities, and that the public’s right to know is somehow different from the media’s right to know. But this is simply not the case.
In the reporting classes I teach, one assignment I give is to require students to attend a trial or city council meeting, or find a bit of information from public records.
Invariably some of the students will say they didn’t know they could do any of those things. They think open meeting and open records laws apply only to the press, not to the people. In many cases they are shocked to learn they have the right to attend these meetings, or the right to see those records.
But remember, it is the public’s right to know what is going on with their government that promotes citizens making intelligent decisions about matters of importance.
The only reason “press” is mentioned in these laws at all is that the writers already believed the public has the right to know what is going on with our elected representatives, and the right to know what is going on applies not just to the press, but to the public as well.
I’m Larry Burriss.