Friday, March 14, 2008

Missouri’s Sunshine Law is important to members of the public, not just journalists

Missouri’s Sunshine Law is an important, but misunderstood, tool for both the public and the news media. That is an important message to communicate during Sunshine Week, March 16-22, 2008.

It may come as a surprise to know that the Sunshine Law is not designed to benefit the news media. The law is designed to protect and inform the public.

The law actually opens doors so both reporters and individuals can see government at work, and find out how taxpayer money is being spent.

The Sunshine Law helps us watch what public officials are doing and it also allows the media to watch on our behalf.

Missouri’s legislators passed their first version of the Sunshine Law in 1973 (with major revisions in 1998 and 2002), just a few years after the federal Freedom of Information Act was enacted. But the fact that this is a fairly new law is important to remember.

The “right to know” is not a constitutional right, but a statutory one. So, only legislative support can save Freedom of Information laws like the Sunshine Laws.

That means public knowledge and support for FOI laws, like the Missouri Sunshine Law, are vital to the future of these laws in our democracy.

During my reporting and professional career, I have heard some people refer to the requirements of the Missouri Sunshine Law as a “waste of time.”

It isn’t so much the posting of notices that most of those complainers were talking about. Rather, it was the general concept of doing public business in public.

I would argue that trying to dodge the requirements of the Sunshine Law is a waste of time. Doing so often creates other unnecessary problems for public officials, boards and political subdivisions.

The Sunshine Law applies to all records, regardless of what form they are kept in, and to all meetings, regardless of how and where they are held.

The law does allow a public body to close meetings and records to the public, in limited circumstances, but it almost never requires a public body to do so.

Another thing worth noting about the Sunshine Law is that it requires a public body to grant access to open records it already has. It does not require a public body to create new records in response to a request for information.

The Sunshine Law also says a public body generally must give at least 24 hours' public notice before holding a meeting. If the meeting will be closed to the public, the notice must state the specific provision of the law that allows the meeting to be closed.

Copies of the Missouri Attorney General’s Sunshine Law booklet can be requested by calling 895-6567. Additional information and forms can be found online at


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