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TN ACLU and journalist organizations file amicus brief in PLN public records suit

Tennessean, Jan. 1, 2009.
TN ACLU and journalist organizations file amicus brief in PLN public records suit - Tennessean 2009

March 6, 2009

Journalist groups join push for CCA to open records

By Chris Echegaray

Five national journalist groups and the Tennessee chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union have joined forces supporting a prison reform advocate who is seeking public records from Nashville-based Corrections Corporation of America.

A friend of the court brief filed in state appeals court Tuesday asks the court to uphold a July ruling by a Nashville chancellor saying that CCA must follow public records law and open its files for viewing.

Alex Friedmann, a former inmate who is now an advocate and associate editor for Prison Legal News, has taken the nation's largest for-profit prison operator to court, seeking access to public records under the Tennessee Public Records Act.

He has campaigned for records that deal with the deaths and questionable treatment of inmates.

Friedmann, the journalism associations and the ACLU contend CCA is performing a governmental function, operating prisons, detention centers and jails with public funding, and, therefore, the public has a right to access documents.

"Our state government cannot contract away its accountability to the public by hiring private, for-profit companies like CCA to perform core governmental functions, such as operating prisons," Friedmann said. "Taxpayers have a right to know how their money is being spent."

The journalism groups are: Society of Professional Journalists, American Society of Newspaper Editors, Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the Associated Press.

Nashville Chancellor Claudia Bonnyman had ruled that CCA, by running jails and prisons, which are essential governmental roles, was a "functional equivalent" to a governmental entity. Since most of its revenues are taxpayer-funded, she ordered the company to make all of its records available, except those sealed by a court order.

CCA fights ruling

CCA, which operates the Metro Detention Facility and six other detention facilities across Tennessee, has maintained the company does not have to comply with public records requests because it is private.

CCA had its own ally file on its behalf. The Tennessee Secondary Schools Athletic Association claims in its brief that the chancery court's ruling would affect other government contractors. Louise Grant, CCA's spokeswoman, declined to comment, referring to their appellate brief.