It's a Secret

It's a Secret

Something very strange is unfolding at the state Legislature. The body is being granted the right to meet in secret. The enabler of all this insanity: the state Court of Appeals.

The ongoing story is one of the more curious—and potentially tragic—things to come along in a while. The tale actually begins years ago, when a Tennessean reporter named Bill Kovach refused to leave a meeting of a Senate committee after being asked to do so. When they tried to throw Kovach out of the meeting, the incident led to a federal court case between the newspaper and the Legislature, which the newspaper won. It also eventually led in 1974 to the crafting of the Open Meetings Act, which granted the media broad authority to cover the affairs of elected officials, such as state lawmakers.

There was good basis for such a law. The state Constitution grants all people the right to inspect the governmental affairs of their lawmakers.

“The printing press shall be free to every person to examine the proceedings of the Legislature,” the Constitution reads. Elsewhere it says, “The doors of each House and of committees of the whole shall be kept open, unless when the business shall be such as ought to be kept secret.”

After the Open Meetings Act went into effect, the Legislature and the media struck a bargain of sorts, which, like many things up there, was never formally articulated but became an accepted way of doing things. From the perspective of the press, the operating assumption was this: There are going to be times when a couple, or three, or four lawmakers get together and meet, and business gets conducted, usually over a whisky bottle in a hotel room somewhere. The media don’t condone this sort of business being transacted in their absence, and in fact despise it, but as long as it’s done rarely and with discretion, the media won’t pitch a fit.

Over time, the press and the Legislature reached a decent accommodation about all of this. Reporters were always allowed in to cover committee meetings. Legislators held their rare secret meeting. Last year, however, the Legislature broke its side of the bargain. They started closing doors on their committee meetings, barring the press, saying things in private, and hiding from the public. Basically, they were dealing with a hot issue—tax reform—and their political fortunes depended on the public not knowing how they felt about the issue.

The press filed suit last year to stop the closed-door meetings, but the state Court of Appeals recently ruled that the Legislature has the right to make its own rules of procedure. In other words, the Legislature can meet in secret if it so desires. George Barrett, one of several attorneys who has been fighting the secret meetings in the Legislature, summed up the situation best: “He who takes away your government first makes it secret.”

As pointed out in a recent Tennessean story, there’s no doubt that the members involved in passing the Open Meetings Act years ago thought that it applied to the Legislature and its members. “We thought the Legislature was going to be covered,” said former state Rep. Mike Murphy. Unfortunately, some lawmakers now think otherwise.

Holding secret meetings deeply hurts the public. No society that operates under a cloud of ignorance has good judgment. The state Court of Appeals made a bad decision, about bad behavior, to bad effect. Some day soon the state Supreme Court may have a chance to reverse this decision. It is our wish that the public’s right to simply watch the Legislature in action is restored.


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