Government & Politics

Missouri AG Schmitt withdraws First Amendment as reason for withholding records

Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt has withdrawn a brief filed last week that cites the First Amendment as reason to withhold records of a southeast Missouri lawmaker, his spokesman said Tuesday.

The brief, first reported by The Star Tuesday, was filed in response to a request for discovery in the defamation lawsuit filed by former Scott City Mayor Ron Cummins. Cummins’ attorney asked for communications from constituents making complaints to state Rep. Holly Rehder, a Sikeston Republican.

Schmitt’s office, which is representing Rehder, attempted to block the request, arguing that to turn over those records would “violate the First Amendment rights of the constituents that made complaints.”

The use of the defense was alarming to transparency advocates, many of whom pointed out that Schmitt was tasked with enforcing the state’s Sunshine Law.

The First Amendment protects freedoms of speech, religion, assembly, the press, and the right to petition. Case law surrounding the First Amendment does not support its invocation such a matter, they argued.

Hours after The Star’s report, Schmitt’s office withdrew the brief.

In a statement, spokesman Chris Nuelle said there were “limited circumstances” in civil cases in which personal information could be protected, as related to the health and safety of the public.

“In the case of Cummins vs. Rehder, after further review, the assertion and objection filed should have not been raised in this instance and will therefore be withdrawn,” Nuelle said.

The attorney general has yet to rule on another matter involving the use of the First Amendment: a request by Missouri Auditor Nicole Galloway to determine whether Gov. Mike Parson illegally used it to withhold information from public records.

The Star first reported on Parson’s use of the First Amendment to redact information from public records in April.

Transparency advocates contended that the move was a clear-cut violation of the state’s open records laws that could shield the actions of lobbyists and other special interests from public scrutiny.

Nuelle says the two issues are not related — that one involves involves discovery in a lawsuit, the other information redacted under the Sunshine Law. The argument in the lawsuit, Nuelle said, should not be construed “as a preview of what may or may not come.”

“In the separate issue regarding the Sunshine Law and the First Amendment, we have been and will continue to be in the process of carefully and deliberately reviewing the law to evaluate whether the blanket use of the First Amendment is proper in redacting personal information,” Nuelle said.

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Crystal Thomas covers Missouri politics for The Kansas City Star. An Illinois native and a graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism, she has experience covering state and local government.