Why is Gov. Mike Parson hiding behind the 1st Amendment to keep public records secret?

Missouri Gov. Parson outlines priorities in State of the State address

Missouri Governor Mike Parson outlined his priorities in his State of the State address Wednesday afternoon in Jefferson City.
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Missouri Governor Mike Parson outlined his priorities in his State of the State address Wednesday afternoon in Jefferson City.

This week, Missouri State Auditor Nicole Galloway asked the attorney general to clear something up: Can the state withhold public information based on the First Amendment?

It seems like a bizarre question. One of the chief goals of the First Amendment is to make government more transparent, not less. Who would think the guarantee of free speech could be used to suppress information in public documents?

Gov. Mike Parson, that’s who. His office has started removing the phone numbers, addresses and email addresses of citizens who communicate with the governor when those communications are sought under the Sunshine Law.

The decision isn’t subject to review. The governor’s office decides what can and can’t be seen.

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“If a taxpayer wants to lobby a complaint with state government, should private information of that person be made public?” asked Parson spokesman Steele Shippy. “Or would it be better to keep that information private in order to let taxpayers feel comfortable to speak freely?”

That explanation flips transparency on its head. The whole point of open records is to make sure public officials act in the public’s interest, not the interests of lobbyists or private citizens asking for a favor. Redacting some of that information helps undercut the Sunshine law.

And it’s wrong to use the First Amendment as a shield.

The governor may be thinking of a 1950s case where the U.S. Supreme Court said the NAACP could keep its donor lists secret from the state of Alabama. The group said it feared retaliation against its donors, and the court agreed.

To start, the court didn’t rely on the First Amendment for that decision. More importantly, though, the NAACP is a private group, seeking donations from private citizens. The court barred government intrusion into those private matters.

Here, the situation is reversed: Private citizens want information from their government. They have a right to it.

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“This isn’t a marginal issue. This goes right to the heart of the Sunshine Law,” said Mark Pedroli of the Sunshine and Government Accountability Project.

He’s right. That’s why Galloway was right to ask Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt to review the governor’s actions and clarify the First Amendment claim.

“Government should not be in the business of finding ways to hide information from taxpayers,” she said this week.

Schmitt should respond to the request and undertake the review. If he throws out Parson’s First Amendment explanation, the Sunshine Law remains intact. If he agrees with the governor, the legislature or the courts will need to fix the law as soon as possible.

The public’s business must be done in public. The governor has forgotten that guiding principle, and he’s wrong to claim a First Amendment excuse to do so.

Editor’s note: The original version of this editorial incorrectly said names were redacted from communications to the governor’s office. The office is only redacting contact information, not the names of the writers. This text has been updated.