“Practical Use of the Sunshine Law” was the topic of a panel discussion co-hosted by the Evangel University (EU) chapter of the Society for Collegiate Journalists, the EU Christian Pre-law Society, the Southwest Missouri PRO Chapter of the Society for Professional Journalists and University of Missouri Extension on Thursday, Jan. 15.
Seventy-eight students, professional journalists and interested citizens attended the Nov. 15 event, which was free and open to the public.
Panelists were Tony Messenger, Springfield (Mo.) News-Leader editorial page editor (Sunday circulation of 92,586); Ron Davis, KSPR (Springfield, Mo., television station) senior news producer; James Klahr, assistant attorney general, state of Missouri; and Ernie O’Gaffney, Christian County (Mo.) citizen.
The following are highlights from that panel discussion.
James Klahr explained that a public body is any political subdivision. Chapter 109 of the state law requires these groups to retain their records and documents. It outlines how long the record has to be retained.
“The retention schedule does not talk about e-mail specifically. It deals more with the content of the record … and how does that fit on the schedule of retention. Then the Sunshine Law deals with a public body’s responsibility for sharing those records,” said Klahr.
FIRST BIG STORY
Tony Messenger related a story about his first job as newspaper in Colorado and how his first big story revolved around the Sunshine Law, although he knew nothing about the law then. “Every citizen has the right to use the Sunshine Law … it is not a press law. If you are a young reporter this law is your very best friend. This is how you get information … it is not about being a jerk or trying to embarrass anyone … it is about keeping public business public. The problem is that not enough city councils, school board or county commissions fully understand this law. There are examples of these violations every single day. Sometimes they happen out of ignorance and many times out of a desire to keep public business private.”
DOING THE TWO-STEP
Ron Davis said dealing with the Sunshine Law is like “a dance between those wanting to let the sunshine in … and those who do not.” As a veteran reporter he has seen situations where government groups pile on the paper work and charge high fees to try and keep a person from getting information. But the information is too important for journalists to stop because there are lots of pages. “Too often the news media gives up because it takes a lot of work … journalists are getting lazy. We need government to be responsive to our requests. Journalists need to be willing to stand up and willing to do the work and go through the records. When journalists stop making these requests that is when journalism falters,” said Davis.
STATE LAW COULD BE IMPROVED
Ernie O’Gaffney said he thinks the state law dealing with minutes and what needs to be them needs to be updated immediately. “The Sunshine Law is very difficult to enforce or to get action on … and there is no real teeth or penalty that makes government bodies feel like they need to respond to requests. Without making it impossible for public citizens to enforce the law it really doesn’t have any teeth. It puts citizens at a real disadvantage,” said O’Gaffney.
COMPLAINTS TO COURT
What percentage of time does a Sunshine Law complaint end up going to court? Rarely, according to James Klahr, who said three cases have come to court in the past year. “The Attorney Generals office gets around 600 calls, letters or inquiries about the Sunshine Law. Half are for clarification or information. The other half are complaints … many times the Sunshine Law is wrapped up in other issues. Sometimes they can be addressed sometimes they can’t,” said Klahr.
KNOW THE LAW THEN USE IT
The two most important laws for journalists to know are libel laws and Sunshine Laws. Privacy laws are also important to know.
“Many public officials know more about the Sunshine Law and they will let on about. This law is the journalist’s tool and it needs to be used to get accurate information. The great thing about the law is that it is very easy to read and understand,” said Messenger.
When a reporter is searching for information, Davis said it is important to remember that the government has to make the case for why the records need to be closed.
“The bedrock is that these records are open. Period. The best way to deal with this is to file a request. A problem many journalists fall into is that they want to be liked by the people or groups they are covering and that can be a real problem. It is the job of a journalist to sign a light on government. Skirting the Sunshine Law seems to be the most non-partisan thing that most all politicians do,” said Davis.
DOES THE LAW NEED MORE TEETH?
The issue with requests for public records is not so much what a person gets, it is what a person doesn’t get. It is impossible to know what else might be available. That begs the question, does the law need more teeth and can it been strengthened?
“When I make a request I don’t know if I’m getting everything. I try to know some of the information I should be getting before I ask. The law needs to be changed in several ways. It needs real teeth. The standard is that you have to prove the violation was purposeful and that is hard to do. This standard should be changed to just violating the law. All state law makers should have some Sunshine Law training after election. Fines should be bigger In Texas, the burden is on the official who does not want to comply with a request. They have to seek a response from the Attorney General. This puts more of the burden on the government official.”
The Sunshine Law has not kept up with changes according to Ron Davis.
“Right now your question has to be a very narrow cast. The law is not very user friendly right now. Let your legislators know you care about this issue. Apply pressure on this issue,” said Davis.
Panelists also agreed that the law needs to be given some teeth.
“In California a violation of the code is a misdemeanor. That is teeth. Missouri could do the same thing. I don’t think you will see it because the same persons we need to change the law are the same ones who are faced with Sunshine Law requests,” said O’Gaffney.
CHANGE IS COMING
“I think there is a lot of statewide interest in updating the Sunshine Law now and I do think something will get done. There is going to be a major media push to make this law better,” said Messenger.
Klahr seemed to agree, although he pointed out that the Attorney General’s office tried to work on some of these same issues several years ago.
“Government bodies can ask us for opinions on these issues but seldom do. A change for that is needed,” said Klahr.
DOES POLITICS INFLUENCE ENFORCEMENT OF THE LAW?
“From my seat it does not influence my day to day work. Under Missouri law currently, these cases are not easy to win. There are a number of questions here. We can be more effective than we were years ago. We could better. Citizens should also make requests not just when they perceive things are going badly … they should make requests regularly,” said Klahr.