A free press is fundamental to our democracy. When government officials choose to block members of the press from witnessing events where decisions that affect the citizens are made, they undermine government transparency and the public trust. That is exactly what happened in Tennessee when state officials decided to close the Tennessee Judicial Conference to reporters and the public.
Tennessee Judicial Conference members are not simply meeting to participate in learning and networking sessions. The Tennessee Judicial Conference was created by the state’s General Assembly to require state judges to meet annually and deliberate on state court policy. The issues discussed and actions taken during the conference directly affect the lives of everyday Tennesseans and how they are governed in the courtroom.
A policy issued by Director of Tennessee Administrative Office of the Courts Michelle Long in February 2022 not only blocks the press and public from observing the conference in violation of the First Amendment, but it also imposes a gag order on members and administrative court office staff preventing disclosure of dates, physical location, virtual access link, speaker documents, or other materials. Meanwhile, the Conference’s federal equivalent, the Judicial Conference of the United States, has allowed public access to committee meetings on proposed rules of practice, procedure, and evidence for nearly 34 years.
In the interest of transparent and open government, Dan McCaleb, executive editor of The Center Square, a newswire service and news website, is suing to reverse the blanket closure policy and allow in-person and virtual access to future meetings. Under Dan’s leadership, The Center Square reports on state- and local-level government and economic issues across the country, including in Tennessee. If the Tennessee Judicial Conference were open to the press, his reporters would cover the proceedings and their impact on Tennesseans.