Tennessee lawmaker proposes law to keep death records private

WSMV's Joylyn Bukovac has the latest on the proposed bill.
Published: Dec. 8, 2022 at 1:42 PM CST
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WSMV) – Tennessee Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson proposed a bill that would block access to death records, investigative reports, and 911 calls for non-criminal death investigations. The introduction of Senate Bill 9 comes as Naomi Judd’s family works to dismiss a lawsuit. The Judd family previously filed a lawsuit to prevent journalists from getting the police records for Naomi Judd’s death investigation.

Johnson says, if passed, bill would clarify what information and records are open to the public if investigators say the death is not a result of a crime

Johnson’s team sent WSMV this statement:

“Leader Johnson sponsored SB9 after a constituent brought it to his attention that the law is not clear as to what information related to a death is public record after an investigation determines the death is not the result of a crime. Leader Johnson is committed to continuing to work with all interested parties in advance of the bill being heard in Committee during the upcoming legislative session. He also feels strongly that it’s important to balance the privacy rights of a person who died under tragic circumstances with the important First Amendment rights of the free press. Leader Johnson believes that the release of audio, photographs or any other recordings taken inside of a private residence where a person tragically passed away — and when no crime was determined to have been committed — harms families and provides no benefit to the public.”

Deborah Fisher, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, says the bill is too broad.

“We think it could be detrimental to access to police records when those records can serve a purpose of accountability. We don’t want to see a narrowing of that access. We think that we’ve had this law of access to those types of records for decades in Tennessee. We haven’t seen any problem with that. In fact, it has led to having a second check on police at times and not just by the press, but by organizations, people, or family members or other people involved,” Fisher said. “The access to those records has sometimes led to reopening of cases, prosecutions that did not occur in the beginning when the case was originally investigated.”