Tennessean v. Electric Power Board of Nashville was a court case in which the Tennessee Supreme Court concerning electronic records and associated fees.
The court ruled that electronic records possessed by a government are, like paper records, subject to the state's public records law. The case also required government agencies in Tennessee to limit what they could charge citizens for copying records, a standard that was in place until it was revised by the state legislature 10 years later.
The lawsuit began when The Tennessean, the morning newspaper in Nashville, asked the local public electricity provider, Nashville Electric Service, for the names, addresses and phone numbers of its customers, and asked that the records be provided to it in an electronic format. NES is an arm of the consolidated metropolitan government of Nashville and Davidson County. NES balked at the request, and the newspaper sued the utility under the state public records law.
The newspaper argued that the data, which NES kept in a computer database, were public records. NES argued that it was not required to provide access to the data because it was not maintained in the exact format in which the newspaper had requested it. The utility also argued that, if it must provide access to the records, it should be allowed to charge the newspaper $86,400 -- a fee that included not only the physical cost of duplicating the database but also included the cost of mailing each of its 292,000 customers a letter notifying them that the newspaper had accessed their information.
Ruling of the court
The state Supreme Court ruled on Nov. 16, 1998, that NES had to provide the newspaper with the records it sought. It also said that NES could only recoup the "actual costs" it incurred in providing the newspaper with the database -- only a few thousand dollars -- and could not charge the newspaper for the cost of mailing the letters.
The "actual costs" standard remained the legal bar for records costs in Tennessee until 2008, when the state legislature put in place a standardized schedule of fees for copying costs but also gave governments permission to charge citizens for government workers' time used in compiling and duplicating records.