JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri Auditor Nicole Galloway on Wednesday criticized Attorney General Eric Schmitt over his silence on whether the governor and state agencies may cite the First Amendment to redact public records.
In May, the Democratic auditor submitted a formal request for an opinion from the attorney general, a Republican, on whether it is appropriate for a government entity to redact information related to individuals conducting business with the state or lobbying state officials.
On May 9, Schmitt’s office indicated they would be in contact within 90 days. That deadline passed on Monday.
“I would expect that he would give an opinion as to whether it is appropriate to redact the information of those attempting to conduct business with or lobby a government entity. Missourians deserve to know who is influencing their government,” Galloway said.
Though the letter from the attorney general’s office said they would be in contact within 90 days regarding Galloway’s request, it did not say an opinion would be issued within that time frame.
“As the initial letter to the auditor stated, the Attorney General’s Office works on routine opinion requests in the order in which they’re received,” Chris Nuelle, spokesman for the attorney general’s office, said in a statement. “A certain request does not take precedent over others that came before it. We do everything in our power to address opinion requests in a timely fashion, and we will continue to do so.”
The dust-up stems from a practice by Gov. Mike Parson’s office, where attorneys have cited the First Amendment — which protects the freedom of speech — numerous times as a reason not to release contact information of private residents when releasing public documents.
Parson’s spokesman has said disclosure of such information may have a chilling effect on individuals contacting government agencies, and has said the office has redacted such information in the past without citing the First Amendment.
Galloway, who is planning to run against Parson next year, contends government should not seek out ways to hide information from taxpayers.
A letter from her office said, “The State Auditor is seeking an Attorney General Opinion on a question of law related to whether the First Amendment of the US Constitution provides an exception to the Sunshine Law such that a government entity can redact, any or possibly all, identifying information related to an individual who is conducting or seeking to conduct business before the entity.”
By law, only statewide and certain elected officials are able to ask for an attorney general’s opinion. Galloway noted in a statement that the attorney general’s office is responsible for enforcing the state’s Sunshine Law.
In June, Nuelle, the attorney general’s office spokesman, said the request for a legal opinion is under review. He confirmed Tuesday that the attorney general had not responded to Galloway.
Open records advocates have questioned the practice, saying the First Amendment doesn’t address the idea of public officials closing public records.
The concerns follow the use by Parson’s predecessor, Eric Greitens, and some senior staffers of a phone app designed to automatically delete text messages after being read by the recipient. The app created new ways for public officials to use their government offices to discuss potentially official business without any record of the communications being searchable under the Sunshine Law.
The Legislature has long exempted itself from the Sunshine Law and debated legislation this spring to weaken the law and circumvent new requirements under the “Clean Missouri” amendment approved statewide by voters in November.
Schmitt was appointed by Parson, also a Republican, to be attorney general last year after then-Attorney General Josh Hawley won election to the U.S. Senate.