A liberal advocacy group has no right to record public meetings of Missouri Senate committees, a state appeals court ruled Tuesday.
The Missouri Western District Court of Appeals affirmed a lower court’s dismissal of a lawsuit filed by Progress Missouri that argued the state Senate violated the Sunshine Law when it repeatedly blocked the group from recording public committee hearings.
The court ruled Tuesday that the Senate is within its constitutional powers to establish its own rules. Blocking Progress Missouri’s attempt to record public hearings doesn’t violate the law, the court said, because the Senate staff records hearings and makes those recordings available to the public.
The Sunshine Law “does not state that all attendees (of a meeting) must be allowed to record meetings so long as doing so is not disruptive,” the court’s ruling said. “Rather, it grants discretion to each individual public body affected by the law to define for itself, through guidelines, how best to enforce the law while minimizing disruption to the meetings of that particular public body.”
Missouri law says a public governmental body “shall allow for the recording by audiotape, videotape or other electronic means of any open meeting” and “may establish guidelines regarding the manner in which such recording is conducted so as to minimize disruption to the meeting.”
Senate rules give committee chairmen the discretion to allow cameras as long as they don’t disrupt the decorum of committee meetings. And the Missouri Constitution says each legislative chamber “may determine the rules of its own proceedings.”
Progress Missouri says it was denied permission to record four Senate committee hearings last February and March and on several occasions the Senate did not record the meetings either.
Laura Swinford, Progress Missouri’s executive director, said she is disappointed the group didn’t prevail but is happy that the ruling didn’t say the Senate is exempt from the Sunshine Law.
“The court said the Senate is recording hearings, so they’re compliant with the Sunshine Law,” she said. “So we’re going to hold them to that and expect them to record public hearings.”
Anne Marie Moy, communications director for the Missouri Senate, said her staff “shoots gavel-to-gavel video” of committee hearings as requested.
“Beyond that, we shoot a lot of additional footage of hearings for the news stories we produce and make available on our website and via social media,” she said.
Swinford said that if the group is told they can’t record a public meeting “and then I show up and they’re not recording it, that’s going to be a problem. We look forward to the Senate fulfilling its obligation under the Sunshine Law and recording all public hearings.”
This isn’t the only instance where the legislature faces criticism over its interpretation of the state’s open records and open meetings laws.
The General Assembly has long argued that individual state representatives, state senators and legislative staff are not subject to the Missouri Sunshine Law, which is designed to cast light on the workings of government.
That means Missourians currently don’t have access to things such as communications between legislators and constituents, lobbyists or interest groups, along with other documents that may better reveal how lawmakers conduct themselves in office.
Not everyone agrees with the legislature’s legal opinion, which is based on a pair of lawsuits — one from 1996, another from 2003 — where courts ruled that while a school board is subject to the Sunshine Law, individual members of that school board are not.
Two years ago, a report by Republican state auditor Tom Schweich criticized the legislature for adopting what he deemed a hypocritical stance on open records.
The state’s Sunshine Law is ambiguous in relation to its impact on individual lawmakers, Schweich’s report found, and the General Assembly should amend the law so it clearly applies to individual legislators.
“It is a double standard for the legislature to impose additional requirements on other public governmental bodies while enjoying a blanket exemption from the Sunshine Law,” the report concluded.
Not every lawmaker agrees with the legislature’s policy on open records. House Minority Leader Jake Hummel, a St. Louis Democrat, turned his emails over within the hour of them being requested by The Star earlier this year.
But a request for the emails of former House member Don Gosen, a St. Louis County Republican who resigned from the legislature earlier this year under a cloud of suspicion, was denied.