Appeals court rules for reporter in public records case

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The Tennessee Court of Appeals ruled on Friday that the state does not have the right to withhold ordinary public records just because they become part of a criminal investigation.

The Friday ruling overturned a lower court's decision and clarified when the criminal investigation exception applies to public records requests.

The lawsuit was brought by WTVF-TV reporter Phil Williams, who was investigating reports of an affair between two state officials that may have involved the use of public funds. He requested records under the Tennessee Public Records Act in June 2018, including expense reports and phone logs.

The state refused to turn over the records, saying they were part of a criminal investigation. It cited an earlier case where media organizations were denied records from an active police investigation of a rape.

Before Williams' case could go to court, the investigation ended and the state turned over the records. But the trial court agreed to hear the case anyway, reasoning that it involved a question of important public policy. The trial court ruled in favor of the state's denial of the records.

The state argued against granting an appeal, saying the case was moot. But the appeals court agreed to hear it, reasoning that the case "concerns governmental transparency and the ability of Tennessee citizens to access information related to the workings of their public officials."

The appeals court ruled in favor of Williams, writing, "Our Supreme Court has made it clear that the TPRA may not be used as a means to bypass normal discovery rules. Throwing open an investigative file could, in fact, damage the integrity of an investigation or prosecution, as well as prove injurious to the defendant. Mr. Williams, however, did not seek the contents of an investigative file. He sought non-investigative public records that were created in the ordinary course of business and kept by their respective agencies."

The appeals court declined Williams' request to be awarded attorney's fees, writing that the state's position was wrong but reasonable.