New legal service will strengthen Chalkbeat’s ability to access public records in Tennessee

Chalkbeat Tennessee is one of a half dozen media organizations in the state that will get additional legal services.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press announced Tuesday that it will launch its Local Legal Initiative this year in Tennessee and four other states to support local journalists and news organizations in pursuing enterprise and investigative journalism. 

The national reporters committee will hire an attorney in each state to work with news organizations to bolster their efforts to obtain public records, gain access to hearings and meetings, and defend against legal threats and lawsuits. 

“This will make a huge difference to journalists in Tennessee, especially as it relates to enforcing the law on public records,” said Deborah Fisher, executive director of Tennessee Coalition for Open Government and a partner in the free legal initiative. 

“The only way to enforce the law in Tennessee is to file a lawsuit, and that can cost thousands of dollars. It’s no secret to government officials who are wrongly withholding or delaying records that most news organizations don’t have thousands of dollars lying around to constantly go to court.”

Chalkbeat’s mission of covering educational change and equity in communities that need it most and holding decision makers accountable depends on our access to public records and data. It’s at the very core of what journalists do. 

Public records are a way to ensure accountability and transparency in government and from public officials. They tell us about test scores, school attendance, and school discipline. They show us how much school districts spend on students and how much administrators make and teachers are paid. And they are a way for us to see who’s trying to influence public policy and who’s contributing to local and state campaigns.

We first published the results of lead testing in schools from our records requests. Most recently, we used records to report that more students were identified as gifted under Shelby County Schools’ new universal testing policy.

In an increasingly digital world, when access to records is easier than ever, reporters face more roadblocks than ever. Journalists must maneuver a labyrinth of rules to access records from different government agencies, broker deals with officials about what’s actually public and what’s not, and then negotiate fees to obtain these records. And there’s no clear path to appealing denials. 

Public records were the basis of our reporting for our story on charter schools fueling the enrollment growth in Shelby County Schools. But getting the data wasn’t easy. We initially asked the district for the standard 20-day enrollment count — numbers that have to be submitted to the state and should be readily available. Halfway through the school year, our request was finally fulfilled. 

All this is time-consuming and distracts from our mission. That’s why we welcome this new partnership. It’s not meant to create an antagonistic relationship with the public entities that we cover. It is our hope that this partnership will make it easier for you to get access, too. Public records aren’t just for journalists, they are just that — public. Any citizen has the right to request and access information on how their tax dollars are spent and monitor the actions of their elected officials. It’s the law.

Besides Chalkbeat, the participating groups in the Local Legal Initiative Tennessee include MLK 50: Justice Through Journalism, the Tri-State Defender, Tennessee Association of Broadcasters, Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, Nashville Public Radio, and the Tennessee Press Association. The project is part of a $10 million investment from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation announced last year to strengthen local journalism.