This week the Nashville Scene sued the lieutenant governor of Tennessee, the speaker of the House, the attorney general, the state treasurer, the state comptroller, and the 132 members of the General Assembly. We did so because reporters have been routinely excluded from covering meetings of legislators, haven’t been informed of meetings held by legislators, and have been asked to leave meetings of legislators.
We have asked that a judge throw out the new state budget, since it was written in violation of state law and the state Constitution. As the Constitution states, “The printing presses shall be free to every person to examine the proceedings of the Legislature.” And the state’s Open Meetings Act states that it’s “the policy of this state that the formation of public policy and decisions is public business and shall not be conducted in secret.”
And so, we go to court. Unless Judge Hamilton Gayden throws out our suit, hearings will be held July 27. We look forward to resolution of the issue. The outcome is critical and goes to the very notion of a civil and educated society.
We wish we could claim pride of authorship for both the idea of the suit and the words in it. In fact, it bubbled up several weeks ago out of the minds of several local attorneys, including George Barrett, Ted Carey, and Dewey Branstetter. All were upset at the erosion of the state’s Open Meetings Law through the actions of state legislators.
The original plaintiff was a law clerk in Barrett’s firm named Mark Mayhew, who is a former reporter. When it became apparent that the case would be made stronger by enlisting a newspaper to its cause, this paper was happy to oblige. Another local news organization, NashvillePost.com, has also signed on as a plaintiff, as hasimportantly a legislator, state Rep. Rob Briley.
We don’t approach this case thinking the Legislature is acting out of willful misconduct. In fact, lawmakers feel they aren’t breaking the law by meeting secretly, owing to an attorney general’s opinion that appears to allow them to make their own rules. However, we argue that the statutesand the intent of the Constitutionare clear: The public has a right to witness the affairs of its lawmakers.
Bill Carey, a reporter for NashvillePost.com and a former legislative correspondent for The Tennessean, has been thrown out of several meetings of lawmakers on Capitol Hill. One time, when Carey was at The Tennessean, his paper was being tossed out of a meeting being run by Lt. Gov. John Wilder. The newspaper protested to Wilder, claiming that the state’s Sunshine Law clearly allowed reporters to cover legislative meetings.
“Governor Wilder then said,” Carey recalls, “ ‘We’re the ones in the sunshine, and you’re in the shade.’ ”
The Scene’s own Jeff Woods has been ordered out of meetings, too, during his years of covering state government. One ouster at the hands of House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh came only hours after Naifeh himself insisted to dumbfounded reporters that lawmakers don’t meet secretly.
Why, you ask, is it so important that reporters cover meetings of government officials? The answer is that the job of reporters is to educate and inform the public. And when reporters cannot gather information, they cannot do their jobs. The result is a public that operates in the darkness of ignorance. Such a society is neither smart nor civil.
This newspaper feels that the mechanics of governance in our state Legislature are approaching a breaking point, as can clearly be witnessed by the recently concluded budget debacle. Allowing the public access to information is but one element of reform that we believe will improve the sad state of affairs there.
@Tony Clifton: It only took a week and a half to ring my bell. Funny…
@P. (u) Wilson: I offer information and interesting news, you call me names. Name calling…
You can do it Pete. Feeding the trolls is pointless.
No pics of the thong wedgie? Damn!
Whatever, Gast. I could post stuff that reflects my attitudes all day and you'd never…