The fall of 2023 will be the 50th anniversary of the legislative birth of Missouri’s Sunshine Law that provides the public with sweeping rights to documents, voting records and meetings of state and local governments.
The Sunshine Law’s foundation has a long history.
The 1972 Watergate scandal of President Richard Nixon contributed to election of Missouri government-reform focused candidates whom some statehouse reporters termed the “white hats.”
They included Governor Kit Bond, Attorney General Jack Danforth and a host of legislators from both parties. These “white hats” pushed for openness in government including tougher laws requiring disclosure of campaign finances and lobbyist expenditures.
In January 1973, the new Senate President Pro Tem, Bill Cason, D-Clinton, sponsored the Sunshine Law. The Associated Press quoted Cason proclaiming that government closed meetings and records represented a “conspiracy of silence that cannot be tolerated.
Cason had a progressive track record on issues expanding civil rights, women’s rights, environmental protection and health care.
But Cason’s bill was not an easy task in a Senate chamber dominated by deeply conservative Democrats.
His Senate bill got tougher when it came out of the House Judiciary Committee chaired by Harold Volkmer, D-Hannibal.
I must confess being a back room player in the Sunshine Law.
Volkmer asked me privately for advice on how to revise the Senate’s version of the Sunshine Law to empower journalists. While I normally refuse requests for advice from those I cover, Volkmer’s request was different.
He simply was seeking an understanding about the information needs of reporters to better inform the public as well as my journalistic experience about the tactics government officials use to block access to government information.
As a recently appointed faculty member of MU’s Journalism School, I felt an obligation to respond.
My first recommendation was to keep the law simple and short so that anyone demanding access to a government meeting or record could cite a simple sentence in the law that did not require a lawyer’s interpretation.
As a broadcast reporter, my other recommendation was to include the right to record governmental meetings.
In response that suggestion, Volkmer drafted crafty language that included “public meetings” in a section that made documents and votes open for “duplication.” Unfortunately, the Senate realized that Volkmer’s language would allow recording of Senate sessions and stripped it from the bill.
At that time, even taking notes in the visitors’ gallery overlooking the Senate chamber was restricted for fear, as senators told me, of lobbyists holding them accountable for their debate comments — although at the press table were reporters sat we were free to take notes.
Nonetheless, the simplicity of Volkmer’s language remained in the new law.
In fact, it was so short that a Missouri chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists produced a wallet-size card of the Sunshine Law that reporters could cite when demanding access to a record or meeting.
Soon after passage of the Sunshine Law, my citing that simple law caused the Mental Health Commission immediately to open a planned closed meeting without seeking legal advice.
Unfortunately, the simplicity of the original Sunshine Law has been blown away over the years with numerous exemptions added by the legislature.
What began as a law of just a page and a half now consumes more than 30 pages with most of those changes providing public officials with excuses to seek legal advice before responding to an access demand. The public’s right to record or videotape public meetings has a more complicated history.
Later, In 2004, the legislature included in the Sunshine Law the right to record a public meeting.
But a subsequent state appeals court decision cited by the state Supreme Court held that the General Assembly could not enact a legal provision that overrode the constitutional power of the legislature to govern its own proceedings, including the right to record a Senate committee session.
As I understood that decision, it effectively meant the entire Sunshine Law did not apply to the legislature.
Missouri voters effectively overturned that decision in 2018 with adoption of the Clean Missouri ballot issue that extended the Sunshine Law to the legislature along with a specific right to record public government meetings.
In contrast to the vision of the original Sunshine Law sponsors, some Missouri government officials have found digital ways to delete their digital public records to prevent public access.
These actions have caused me to wonder how the two original Sunshine Law legislative leaders, both deceased, would react to the methods some government officials have implemented to get around their vision of public access to government business.
(Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970. He is the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of Missouri Digital News and an emeritus faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes).
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