Private Tenn. athletic association seeks public records exemption

TENNESSEE — A bill that would have reversed the effects of a court ruling affording the public access to the records of the nonprofit Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association is likely to be narrowed to exclude only confidential student records from public scrutiny.

Sen. Mike Bell introduced the bill on Feb. 18 to create the public records exemption for the TSSAA, a private, nonprofit organization that creates the bylaws and regulations for secondary school athletics. Rep. Glen Casada sponsored the same bill in the House.

Though the TSSAA is not a public agency, the Court of Appeals of Tennessee ruled in April 2014 that the organization acts as the functional equivalent of a governmental agency and is therefore bound by the state’s open records law.

The City Paper in Nashville filed suit against TSSAA when the organization denied the newspaper’s request for documents about the TSSAA’s investigation of a private school accused of violating the organization’s financial-aid bylaws.

The legislation is scheduled for discussion in a House subcommittee on April 1 and in a Senate committee on April 7. Bell and Casada did not respond to telephone calls requesting comment.

Rick Colbert, TSSAA’s attorney, said the organization is pushing for the exemption because it deals with “600 to 1,000 cases a year” where students seek an exemption to the organization’s eligibility rules.

“In order to determine whether an exemption is warranted, we wind up receiving an assortment of private, personal, family information about these kids,” Colbert said.

The bill would exempt all records within the TSSAA that the organization was not otherwise required by law to release, such as audited financial statements, which was language an editorial in The Tennessean criticized as being overly broad.

Colbert said he wrote an amendment to the bill in order to narrow the scope of the exemption “to records relating to academic performance, financial status of the student or the student’s parent or guardian, medical or psychological treatment or testing and person family information.”

Although the Senate State and Local Government Committee was scheduled to discuss the bill on Thursday, committee Chairman Ken Yager deferred the hearing in order to propose an amendment of his own and to allow for additional time to review the bill.

Deborah Fisher, the executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, said Colbert’s amendment, if passed, would address the concern that the TSSAA would get a “blanket exemption” from the open records law.

“No one was ever wanting for student academic records to be made public,” Fisher said, “so I don’t think anybody had a problem with those same confidentiality protections applying to the TSSAA as it applied to the schools.”

Contact SPLC staff writer Mariana Viera by email at (202) 478-1926.