Data on school computers not automatically subject to inspection under Tennessee Public Records Act

Plaintiff-appellant Brennan filed suit against the Giles County Board of Education after it refused his request under Tennessee’s Public Records Act to inspect data on certain computers owned by the school system. Brennan’s request included all e-mail sent and received with the computers, as well as all websites visited with them.

The lower court held an in camera review of the requested information and concluded that the Act did not require it be made available for public inspection. Brennan sought review in the Tennessee Court of Appeals, which affirmed the lower court’s decision.

Brennan had asked the court to develop a per se rule under the Public Records Act which would automatically render data stored on school-owned computers subject to public inspection. The court declined to draw such a bright line, holding that the legislature did not intend for all such records to be subject to “public perusal.”

The court relied heavily on the Florida case of Times Publishing Co. v. City of Clearwater, 830 So.2d 844 (Fla.App.2002), which interpreted Florida’s nearly-identical statute on the issue. The court held that the language of the Tennessee statute, which provides for inspection of documents “made or received pursuant to law or ordinance or in connection with the transaction of official business by any governmental agency,” precludes inspection of private or personal communications.

Instead of developing a per se rule for the conditions under which documents on school-owned computers become subject to inspection, the court held that such matters should be reviewed on a case-by-case basis. Accordingly, the lower court was correct in conducting the in camera review.

Brennan v. Giles County Bd. of Education, 2005 WL 1996625 (Tenn.Ct.App., August 18, 2005).