Government & Politics

Governor will still withhold records from public, despite letter from attorney general

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson arrives for a news conference Tuesday, May 14, 2019, in his Capitol office in Jefferson City, Missouri.
Missouri Gov. Mike Parson arrives for a news conference Tuesday, May 14, 2019, in his Capitol office in Jefferson City, Missouri. The Associated Press

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson will continue to redact certain information from public records, despite a letter from the attorney general’s office Thursday advising him to stop using the First Amendment as justification to withhold records from public disclosure.

Kelli Jones, Parson’s spokeswoman, said Friday afternoon that while “we respect Attorney General (Eric) Schmitt’s opinion,” the governor’s office believes his letter highlighted a lack of clarity in the law.

Parson has cited the First Amendment — which protects freedoms of speech, religion, assembly, the press, and the right to petition —when refusing to release information such as phone numbers, addresses and emails of private citizens who contacted the governor’s office.

State Auditor Nicole Galloway, a Democrat who is running for governor in 2020, asked the attorney general’s office in May to determine whether Parson’s use of the Fist Amendment to withhold public records violates the state’s Sunshine Law.

She argued that Parson’s policy would provide “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.”

In a letter Thursday to both Parson and Galloway, the attorney general’s office said the governor should not “rely on the First Amendment for blanket redactions of personal contact information,” adding that Missouri’s Sunshine Law “declares our state’s commitment to openness in government.”

The letter cited numerous court cases to support that conclusion, noting that 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,” the letter said, “have repeatedly ordered disclosure of personal contact information in response to Sunshine Law requests.”

Courts have allowed redaction of personal information in specific instances, the letter states, 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 already includes specific protections for personal information, the attorney general’s office wrote, such as social security numbers, credit cards and PIN numbers.

Jones said that previous administrations have redacted this type information, and when Parson’s office has done so it is “always intended to protect people from the potential of harassment.”

Additionally, she said, the governor has never relied solely on the First Amendment when redacting information.

Asked if that means the governor’s office will continue to redact personal information from public records, Jones said that “each Sunshine request is treated independently on a case-by-case basis.”

Schmitt, a Republican who was appointed attorney general by Parson after Josh Hawley left the office to become a U.S. Senator, declined comment on the governor’s response to his letter.

In a statement, 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.”

Mark Pedroli, founder of the nonprofit Sunshine and Government Accountability Project, said the attorney general’s letter was “clear and unequivocal, as it should be.

“There has never been legal support for the governor’s position,” Pedroli said.

The Sunshine Law’s terms are clear and explicit, said David Roland, director of litigation the Freedom Center of Missouri, a libertarian nonprofit that advocates for government transparency.

“Unless a statute creates an applicable exception, records of public governmental bodies are open to the public and public officials have no discretion to withhold information that is responsive to a citizen’s request,” Roland said.

The attorney general has made Parson aware of a number of cases affirming this position, Roland said, even where a public official might consider the information at issue to be sensitive.

“If in the future the governor’s office withholds information from a public record and cannot point to a specific statute that justifies that withholding,” Roland said, “a court might consider it a knowing or purposeful violation of the Sunshine Law.”

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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.
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