If government officials accuse you of filing one too many public records requests, then they could use the courts to penalize you under a proposed bill at this year’s Tennessee General Assembly.
State Rep. William Lamberth (R-Cottontown) introduced the bill this session.
As written, a government official could seek an injunction to keep people “from making records requests that constitute harassment.”
If an injunction goes through, then the person requesting government records could make no further requests for one year, according to the bill. That person, though, could ask a court to reverse the decision – but only if he or she shows “the public records request does not constitute harassment.”
“Harassment” means three or more public records requests within a period of one year that are made in a manner that would cause a reasonable person, including a records custodian or any staff of the public entity in control of the public records, to be seriously abused, intimidated, threatened, or harassed,” according to the bill, as currently written.
“For which the conduct in fact seriously abuses, intimidates, threatens, or harasses the person; and that are not made in good faith or for any legitimate purpose, or are made maliciously.”
But who decides what’s reasonable and what’s malicious?
Lamberth did not return The Tennessee Star’s requests seeking comment this week.
Tennessee Coalition for Open Government Executive Director Deborah Fisher told The Star she discussed the bill with Lamberth last week.
Lamberth, Fisher said, proposed the bill because someone in his district files an excessive number of public records requests every year.
“My initial reaction is that we think that if there are problems with certain requestors then that could be handled in a different way,” Fisher said.
“Allowing a government entity to sue a public records requestor is a really big step, and we’re concerned that could open the door for a lot of mischief. We want to work with Representative Lamberth.”
Fisher said, though, she worries about “a chilling effect.”
“Sometimes when you are requesting public records, sometimes, but not all the time, there is a record you are requesting that a public official may not want you to have,” Fisher said.
“We don’t want there to be a situation where someone is trying to get a record that they legitimately should have access to and might be important for a news story or for information, and yet they’re blocked because a government official could turn around and sue them.”
The bill, Fisher said, “could open the door to mischief.”