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From AJR,   January/February 1998  issue

Tennessee Officials and the Cookie Monster   

A journalist battles to gain access to public records in Cookeville, Tennessee.


By Don Walker
Don Walker is senior editor/enterprise and special projects for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.     

A journalist battles to gain access to public records in Cookeville, Tennessee.

Geoff Davidian, editor and publisher of the pugnacious Putnam Pit, an alternative newspaper in Tennessee, is mad. And he wants to get even.

For more than two years, he has fought, mostly unsuccessfully, for the right to see and examine the public records kept by the city fathers of Cookeville, Tennessee, a town of 25,000 nestled between Knoxville and Nashville.

He's faced a number of barriers: The open records law in Tennessee applies only to the state's residents (Davidian divides his time between California and Cookeville); and city officials want a deposit of several hundred dollars before even considering whether to grant Davidian access to records.

So Davidian, 53, whose background includes work for the Arizona Republic, the old Milwaukee Journal and the Houston Chronicle, is trying a new tactic. If he succeeds, he might just break some new journalistic legal ground.

In a federal court in Nashville, Davidian has filed suit seeking access to Internet files on City Hall computers. Such files include so-called cookie files, history files, cache files, browser files and temporary Internet files.

Cookies are small text files — mini tracking devices — sometimes placed on a user's computer when someone visits a Web site. A cache file is a file for storing frequently accessed information and images. The other files serve similar purposes.

In his suit, Davidian argues, with a touch of self-deprecating humor, that he wants to see files "that would show whether city computers had been browsing Internet sites not consistent with government employment, such as adult-oriented pornography sites or ones advocating white supremacy or, worse, the Putnam Pit online."

Davidian's rationale is that journalists routinely ask for phone records, and so cookie files and other history files should be no different.

"Cookies are a record and a log," he says. "The law says all records generated by city business are public records. Cookies are not excluded."

"It's an interesting question," says Jane Kirtley, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. "The closest equivalent to this is cell phone and long distance records. Those are considered public records in most states," she says, adding that many newspapers have used phone records for stories.

Katherine White, a North Carolina-based lawyer specializing in media law who writes a column for Digital Edge, an online publication affiliated with the Newspaper Association of America, says Davidian's suit is a first in the ever-changing world of Internet law and the media.

The Tennessee public records law "makes public records of information in electronic format or electronic storage media unless the information is expressly exempted from the public records law," she says. "Cookie files and others are not exempted."

Ûhe city of Cookeville takes a different view. City attorney Michael O'Mara says cookie files are not public records. "And I don't think cache or Internet files are public records, either." He declined further comment.

Davidian landed in Tennessee when, in 1995, he met a woman who asked him to look into the death of her daughter, Darlene Eldridge. The younger Eldridge had died from injuries suffered in a fire that the state fire marshal ruled as arson.

Intrigued, Davidian headed to the Volunteer State. When he started investigating, he hit walls: Authorities wouldn't return his phone calls, and he was denied access to public records.

So in May 1996, Davidian founded the Putnam Pit ("No Bull," he trumpets on top of the paper) and billed it Putnam County's watchdog press.

His credo? Raise some hell, look under some rocks, and keep asking questions about stories nobody else wanted to touch in Tennessee.

"I wanted to create an atmosphere in which corruption could not occur," Davidian says.

Davidian's paper and Web site ( www.putnampit.com ) were and are an amalgamation of his persistent efforts to look at records at City Hall and other governmental agencies. He also offers stories about small-town politics and alleged cover-ups.

"The first issue was 200 copies, photocopied on one side of four sheets of legal-sized paper," Davidian says. "In September of this year, we ran off 6,000 copies, 16 pages of newsprint. We have some subscribers, and we sell some; most are given away for free."

City officials and residents didn't exactly take to the Pit. "Many outlets that sold Playboy and Penthouse, cigarettes and booze, said I did not meet their standards," Davidian says.

There were few advertisers, and now he accepts no ads. "I said the hell with it. I don't want anyone to think I have any conflict of interest," he says.

With little income, Davidian publishes his newspaper infrequently (he refers to his publication cycle as "more or less" monthly).

Davidian's attorney, Sam Harris, of Cookeville, admits his client has been pesky to the city's officials for some time. He says Davidian called several attorneys in the local phone book, looking for someone to take his case.

He ended up with Harris because, as Harris puts it, "I'm not from here." He adds: "I don't think Geoff's suit is frivolous... Geoff wants to know what public officials are doing on the Internet. If they're visiting sports pages and babes, we want to know."

On December 10, at a conference in Nashville, Federal Magistrate William J. Haynes made no decision on Davidian's request for the Internet files and asked Harris to submit a new brief explaining how his client's civil rights had been violated.

If Davidian is victorious, reporters may have a new weapon in their continuing role as government watchdogs.