Media have no ‘legitimate interest’ in confidential juvenile records, says Tennessee official

Wednesday, August 30, 2000

The news media do not have a “legitimate interest” in inspecting
juvenile court files and records, the Tennessee attorney general said in a
recent opinion.

Tennessee law limits the inspection of juvenile court records,
allowing access only under certain exceptions.

Under one exception, the court may permit any “person or agency or
institution having a legitimate interest in the proceeding or in the work of
the court” to inspect the records.

State Sen. Curtis Person Jr. asked the attorney general whether the
news media generally qualify as entities with a “legitimate interest” in
confidential juvenile court records.

Attorney General Paul G. Summers answered “No” in an Aug. 10 opinion,
writing that “legitimate interest” does not apply to people whose only interest
is “mere curiosity.”

“Notwithstanding the rights granted by the First Amendment, this
limitation extends to the media as well as individuals since ‘the First
Amendment generally grants the press no right to information about a trial
superior to that of the general public,’ ” Summers wrote.

Summers reasoned that if the media were allowed access to confidential
juvenile records, the confidentiality statutes “would be of no effect since all
confidential information would, essentially, be available to any inquiring

Alan Johnson, a media attorney based in Nashville, said that the
attorney general’s conclusion “in the run-of-the mill” juvenile case is

“However, in an exceptional case, a strong argument can be made that
the media and the public have a legitimate interest in viewing certain
records,” Johnson said.

Johnson also took issue with the portion of the opinion that described
the media’s interest as “mere curiosity.”

“The public has a constitutional right to attend trials and that right extends to juvenile transfer hearings,” he said. “If you characterize that right or interest as mere curiosity, then you are diminishing a constitutional right.”

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