Privacy rights vs. the public’s right to know

By Phill Brooks
    A recent lawsuit filed against the Missouri House has highlighted a growing conflict between demands for openness in government versus the expectation of Missouri citizens for personal privacy. Missouri's Sunshine Law addresses privacy concerns for some information held by state government.


    Personal information involving health matters, child placement, academic records and credit card numbers are among the long list of exemptions from the requirement that government records be open to the public. But in the last few years conflicts have arisen involving personal communication with government officials by private citizens.
    Gov. Mike Parson has refused to release the contact information of constituents communicating with his office. In 2019, the Missouri House adopted a rule allowing members to block public access to their constituent case files and correspondence.
    The rule came in response to the Clean Missouri constitutional amendment which requires the legislature to follow the Sunshine Law, which does not specifically exempt constituent communication. But that House rule quickly was challenged in a court case still pending as this column is written.
    I confess, I understand the House concerns.
    Should communication by a constituent to a legislator about the problems of a special needs child be exposed to the public including contact information such as an email address or home phone number that the constituent thought private?
    I fear that public access to that information could discourage constituents disclosing personal matters that can help legislators better understand issues facing the public. So many times I've seen how emotional testimony to legislative committees about issues such as nursing home abuse or drunken driving consequences have impacted public policy.
    There is another side to this issue.
    When I voiced my concerns to a senior statehouse reporter, the response was that disclosure of contact information in communications to the governor had allowed the reporter to directly contact the sources to better understand their issues.
    Beyond that, closing access to communication from constituents would include major campaign contributors, wealthy special interests and lobbyists. Should a public official be able to keep those special-interest communications or contact information secret?
    An example of this conundrum arose last year when a lobbyist pushing for restrictions on college sexual-harassment investigations was found to have a personal interest in the issue involving his son's dismissal from a university.
    These questions have become more profound with the growth of social media giving anyone power to disclose to a worldwide internet audience personal information gained from government records.
    Back in the 1970s, before the Sunshine Law, I found many government officials quite willing to provide "main-stream media" reporters with information on individuals with an understanding we were bound by professional standards which include respecting personal privacy.
    For example, the Mental Health Department director gave me 24-hour access to mental health hospitals with confidence I would respect patient privacy rights.
    The consumer protection chief for Attorney General Jack Danforth, Harvey Tettlebaum, urged me to read through the consumer complaints filed with his office before interviewing him on a consumer issue. He knew I would not divulge the names or contact information without the consumer's permission.
    Reading those letters gave me a far better understanding of consumer issues and made my stories far more powerful because of the personal stories of consumer problems I'd read.
    The problem arises when the "private citizen" communicating with a public official on a supposedly "private" communication is a lobbyist, campaign contributor or a person with a significant financial interest in the subject of the letter or memo.
    I'm not sure how a law could be drafted to distinguish those with special interests from ordinary constituents. After all, almost every constituent in our state has a financial interest as tax payers and recipients of government services.
    As for journalists making that decision, over the decades I occasionally have been conflicted about whether I have a right to report a conversation I overheard in what public officials or lobbyists thought were private settings.
    I continue to lean on the side of protecting personal privacy unless there is an overriding public interest for disclosure. But, I fear that standard is less firm in today's mass media.
    EDITOR’S NOTE: Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970, making him dean of the statehouse press corps. He is the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of MDN 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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