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Knox County Commission removes photography ban on public records

By Deborah Fisher • Updated Dec 28, 2017 at 12:00 PM

The Knox County Commission on Monday night eliminated a short-lived ban on photography of public records and updated its public records policy to allow citizens to use personal equipment to make their own copies subject to some rules.

Mayor Tim Burchett previously requested the change and in a work session, and commissioners unanimously supported removing the ban.

TCOG tracked the issue, and it appears to be the first reversal on such bans, many of which were adopted by government entities in Tennessee this year. The bans resulted in journalists and other citizens prevented from taking pictures of public records with their cell phones.

The Knox County Commission also updated its policy to add 11 “public records request coordinators” who could handle public records requests. Previously, only one was identified in the policy. The move decentralizes the records requests across government departments such as the election commission and sheriff’s office instead of bottlenecking requests through a single office.

The issue of taking pictures of public records spread throughout many government offices this year after the state Office of Open Records Counsel released a model public records policy in January that contained language suggesting a government entity decide whether it would or would not allow citizens to use personal equipment to make copies of public records. Many government entities who followed the model policy’s language chose to not allow it at all.

The issue came up in a state legislative committee hearing when state Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, urged three state agencies before it that day who had adopted the ban in new policies to end the practice and “allow our citizens to use all the available technology under supervision that is available to them out there – and one of them being able to photocopy a record with a cellphone.”

The resolution approved Monday would remove from the county policy the sentence, “A requester will not be allowed to make copies of records with personal equipment” and insert instead:

“A requestor will be allowed to make copies of records with personal equipment, provided that the requestor’s duplication of such records does not impede other citizens’ access to county services or records, and that the requestor is willing to schedule an appointment for the purposes of duplicating a large number of records or records that are stored off-site or are not immediately accessible. However, an independent Knox County officeholder (either elected or appointed) may, in his/her discretion, adopt and enforce reasonable rules governing the use of personal equipment to make copies of records. In all cases, the use of personal storage devices (i.e. external hard drives, flash drives, etc.) or any equipment that must be connected to- or inserted into any County computer, equipment or network is prohibited.”

While the resolution doesn’t promise that no rules will be implemented for people using their own copy equipment, it does make clear that only “reasonable rules” can be adopted, echoing state law.

TCOG, and three other entities that serve on the Advisory Committee on Open Government to advise the Office of Open Records Counsel, urged open records counsel Lee Pope to update the model policy with different language.

TCOG based its advice on state law that for any record a citizen is allowed to inspect, the citizens “shall have the right to take extracts or make copies thereof, and to make photographs or photostats of the same while such records are in the possession, custody and control of the lawful custodian thereof or such custodian’s authorized deputy…”

Several states in the Southeast and elsewhere have already addressed the issue, with those states either through attorney general opinions or by another method, clarifying government entities must allow citizens to take photos of public records. If there are restrictions, they generally relate to when the use of personal equipment might damage the record.

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