The Missouri press is under attack. The ability for us to hold our government accountable is under attack. And that means our freedom is under attack.
Missouri has a law designed to promote transparency in government. It’s called the Sunshine Law, and it allows us to request records from our government officials. We can request public records such as reports about why children are being dropped from health care coverage, communications between our elected officials and big-money donors, and even reports connected with local school board decisions.
We can’t see every record the government makes. Sometimes, sensitive records need to be redacted or closed altogether.
When our legislators passed the Sunshine Law in 1973, they took that into account and gave the government several different exemptions to keep some records confidential. But the law’s goal was always transparency. Without transparency, we can’t have accountability.
A lot has changed over the past 46 years. The Sunshine Law is under attack by the very legislative body that created it. Instead of enforcing the law, our attorney general is leaving the job to private attorneys who have fewer resources and have to take a big financial risk just to maintain transparency. And now some government agencies are trying a new tactic to avoid transparency with the attorney general’s blessing: They’re charging attorneys fees.
Missourians who ask for records from their government are now getting hit with large bills for attorneys to review the records before handing them over. These bills add thousands of dollars to the cost to access records, meaning that the only folks who will be able to access public records are those with a lot of money. Transparency no longer means transparency for the public. It means transparency for the wealthy.
These charges will also have a large impact on the press. Reporters routinely ask government officials for public records. If the government can charge attorneys fees, many papers and stations will not be able to access information, and our elected officials will be able to avoid accountability. Freedom of the press will be a reality only for the press that can afford to pay for freedom.
We need much more accountability in Missouri. That’s why I sued the government, and I am taking it to court on the issue of charging attorney’s fees for the public to access public records. On Friday, the court accepted briefs filed in support of my position from the Missouri Press Association, the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri, the Freedom Center of Missouri, and the Sunshine and Government Accountability Project. Every one of these groups understands that our liberty is closely tied to government transparency
It’s time for us to bring transparency back to our government. It’s time for our officials to serve us, not just those with money and power. It’s time for us as citizens to take our role in this system seriously, to ensure America works and to hold those in power accountable.
It’s time to enforce our Sunshine Law, bring corruption to light and take back Missouri.
Elad Gross is a former assistant attorney general of Missouri. He is currently a constitutional and civil rights attorney and Democratic candidate for Missouri Attorney General.