Government & Politics

Missouri AG says Gov. Parson shouldn’t use First Amendment to withhold public records

Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, right, shortly after he was appointed to the position by Gov. Mike Parson late last year.
Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, right, shortly after he was appointed to the position by Gov. Mike Parson late last year.

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson should stop using the First Amendment as justification to withhold certain public records from disclosure, the state attorney general’s office said in a letter delivered Thursday evening.

State Auditor Nicole Galloway, a Democrat who is running for governor in 2020, asked Attorney General Eric Schmitt in May to weigh in on whether Parson was violating the state’s Sunshine Law when his office cited the First Amendment in its refusal to turn over certain public records.

The First Amendment protects freedoms of speech, religion, assembly, the press, and the right to petition. Parson’s office was using it to redact telephone numbers, addresses and email addresses of private citizens who have reached out to the governor’s office.

Deputy Attorney General Justin Smith wrote Thursday evening that Parson’s office should not “rely on the First Amendment for blanket redactions of personal contact information,” noting that Missouri’s Sunshine Law “declares our state’s commitment to openness in government.”

The letter was also delivered to the auditor’s office.

The Star first revealed the governor’s use of the First Amendment in late April.

Parson’s office defended its policy at the time, saying that this is a free speech issue because citizens would not reach out to their elected officials if they believed their personal information might become public.

Transparency advocates pilloried the policy, calling it a flagrant violation of the Sunshine Law.

Schmitt, who like Parson is a Republican, cited the First Amendment earlier this month in a lawsuit against a legislator in southeast Missouri to block the release of certain records.

But just days later, Schmitt withdrew the legal brief making the First Amendment argument.

In its letter to Parson, the attorney general’s office said when public entities have asserted a constitutional right to privacy to protect personal information sought by a Sunshine Law request, “Missouri courts have viewed that constitutional argument skeptically.”

“Missouri courts have repeatedly ordered disclosure of personal contact information in response to Sunshine Law requests,” the letter stated.

Courts have allowed redaction of personal information in specific instances, but “not as a blanket approach.” For example, a court of appeals determined the name of a crime victim who can identify an assailant that is not yet in custody is not a public record.

The Sunshine Law also already includes specific protections for personal information, the attorney general’s office wrote, such as social security numbers, credit cards and PIN numbers.

The governor’s office could be immediately reached for comment.

In a statement Thursday morning, Galloway said Schmitt’s letter “confirms Gov. Parson was wrong to withhold information from the public.

“Nonpartisan advocates for government transparency and legal experts all agree,’ she said, “the Governor’s actions were unlawful.”

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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.