Government & Politics

Missouri auditor: AG must decide if 1st Amendment can be used to redact public records

Missouri Auditor Nicole Galloway has formally requested the attorney general’s office determine whether Gov. Mike Parson’s use of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution to withhold records from public disclosure violates the Sunshine Law.

Galloway, a Democrat, sent her request to Attorney General Eric Schmitt, a Republican, Tuesday morning. In it she makes clear that she believes Parson, a Republican, is wrong to redact information from public records on the basis of the First Amendment.

“Government should not be in the business of finding ways to hide information from taxpayers, but time and again, we have seen continued efforts to do just that,” Galloway said in a statement.

The First Amendment protects freedoms of speech, religion, assembly, the press, and the right to petition.

The governor’s office has cited the amendment seven times in recent months to redact telephone numbers, addresses and email addresses of private citizens who have reached out to the governor’s office.

Parson’s spokesman has argued that this is a free speech issue, in that constituents would not reach out to their elected officials if they believed their personal information might become public. He also noted that the office has previously redacted the same information without citing the First Amendment.

Galloway, who says in her request that her office does not redact this information from records, argues that Parson’s policy “provides greater protections to those lobbying or conducting business with the government entity than is given to individuals who are referenced in arrest and incident report records.”

“While this office does not believe that the First Amendment exception is a valid exception under Missouri law,” Galloway wrote, “it requests the opinion of the Attorney General to ensure that it is properly complying with the law.”

Steele Shippy, the governor’s communications director, called Galloway’s letter “yet another lame partisan political attempt.”

Galloway has “zero credibility when it comes to properly handling government records,” Shippy said, pointing to an unsuccessful lawsuit filed by a conservative nonprofit accusing Galloway of withholding records that were requested under the Sunshine Law.

A central issue of the lawsuit was the auditor’s office use of iPhones that automatically erase messages after 30 days. A judge determined there was no proof the office either intentionally or mistakenly violated the law.

Shippy said the governor’s office will “continue to protect the personal information of Missourians, as the law allows for under both the First Amendment and Missouri’s Sunshine Law.”

Galloway’s pres secretary, Steph Deidrick, said in an email to The Star that the attorney general’s office previously cleared Galloway of any wrongdoing. Additionally, Deidrick said, it is “true this office was sued by a dark money group, and we prevailed on every point.”

Chris Nuelle, Schmitt’s spokesman, said the attorney general’s office is reviewing Galloway’s request and deciding on further steps.

“The Attorney General is dedicated to protecting, defending, and enforcing the Sunshine Law,” Nuelle said in an email to The Star, “and he works every day to ensure transparency at all levels of government.”

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Jason Hancock is The Star’s lead political reporter, providing coverage of government and politics on both sides of the state line. A three-time National Headliner Award winner, he has written about politics for more than a decade for news organizations across the Midwest.