Why is Missouri Gov. Mike Parson ignoring the AG and withholding public records?

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson takes oath, promises a ‘fresh start’

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson took the oath of office on June 1, 2018, in Jefferson City, becoming the state's 57th governor. He replaces Eric Greitens, who resigned.
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Missouri Gov. Mike Parson took the oath of office on June 1, 2018, in Jefferson City, becoming the state's 57th governor. He replaces Eric Greitens, who resigned.

The rule of law. Transparency. Accountability. Limited and enumerated governmental powers.

These are all principles touted by America’s founders, yet flouted by Republican Missouri Gov. Mike Parson, who has chosen to ignore the state attorney general’s advice by continuing to redact government records without legal authority.

Parson may sincerely believe he’s protecting the privacy of people who write to the governor by redacting their contact information. And in the era of “doxing” — the practice of publicly releasing other people’s private information to hurt them — it’s an understandable concern. But whatever the greater good he thinks he’s advancing, the governor is ignoring the state’s Sunshine Law and all notions of government transparency in claiming that the correspondents’ First Amendment rights allow him to take a blanket approach to redacting contact information.

That’s not just this newspaper’s opinion. It’s the view of Republican Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, whose office, in a letter to the governor, noted cases in which “Missouri courts have viewed that constitutional (right to privacy) argument skeptically.”

“Missouri courts have repeatedly ordered disclosure of personal contact information in response to Sunshine Law requests,” Schmitt’s office wrote the governor.

In addition, privacy is a dubious expectation when corresponding with elected officials, particularly if one is lobbying on matters of public policy.

And while a Parson spokeswoman claims each redaction “is treated independently on a case-by-case basis,” the governor’s default position seems to be to conceal the information.

The governor’s spokeswoman also argues that the attorney general’s letter underscores “a lack of clarity in the law.” Even if that is true, the tie goes to transparency: The default position, absent explicit statutory authority to the contrary, must be openness. The state’s Sunshine Law, the attorney general’s office reminded the governor, requires such records to be “open to the public unless otherwise provided by law.”

Conservatives rightly maintain that governmental powers ought to be enumerated. Where is the enumerated power of the Missouri governor to arbitrarily black out information about those who are corresponding with him?

One could claim this controversy flows from a partisan and opportunistic attack by Democratic state Auditor Nicole Galloway, who just happens to be running for Parson’s seat in 2020 and who asked for the attorney general’s opinion. But the attorney general’s informal opinion comes from a fellow Republican, hardly a partisan or opportunistic act on his part.

“There has never been legal support for the governor’s position,” concludes Mark Pedroli, founder of the nonprofit Sunshine and Government Accountability Project.

“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,” adds David Roland, director of litigation for the libertarian nonprofit Freedom Center of Missouri.

Until the Missouri General Assembly votes to explicitly allow them, these wholesale redactions in public records are contrary to the law and should cease. The attorney general should have said so. And the governor would be wise to listen.