JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens does not have to provide the state attorney general with records related to his social media accounts such as private messages and names of blocked users.
The Kansas City Star reports that the office of Attorney General Josh Hawley said in a letter this week that the governor’s Twitter and Facebook accounts are not public records. Both Greitens and Hawley are Republicans.
The Star also reported that Hawley’s office on Thursday announced it found no open records violations from Democratic Auditor Nicole Galloway’s office. An investigation was launched in December after a Republican-aligned nonprofit accused Galloway of failing to turn over text messages from her state-issued phone.
Greitens on Thursday was in his Capitol office, taking questions from Missourians about his recently announced tax cut plan via Facebook Live. His office insists it was not government business because the online meeting was not conducted on the official government account he created in September, nine months into office.
Hawley agrees, saying in the letter that the governor’s social media accounts are not subject to Missouri’s open records laws, known as the Sunshine Law.
Transparency advocates worry that the ruling is a troubling precedent given concerns about Greitens’ penchant for secrecy.
Katie Fallow, a senior lawyer at the Knight First Amendment Institute, said Greitens’ use of social media is comparable to how some public officials use personal email to conduct official business.
But, she said, “that doesn’t mean that they’re then relieved of their obligations under whatever the relevant laws are.”
Hawley said during a December news conference that electronic messages on private devices could still be deemed public records. He appears to have backtracked, at least when it comes to electronic communications through private Twitter and Facebook accounts.
“Campaign and/or personal social-media accounts are not subject to public records laws unless they are used to transact public business,” Hawley spokeswoman Loree Anne Paradise said. “To date, no evidence available to us indicates that those accounts are being used to transact public business.”
Democratic state Rep. Mark Ellebracht of Liberty is sponsoring a bill to update the Sunshine Law to deem an agency or official’s personal social media pages as public records.
“What I want to avoid now is having a government that’s shifted from a government of openness and transparency to a government that does 90 percent of its policy discussion on third party-hosted websites where people can be blocked and messages can be hidden and information can be controlled,” Ellebracht said.
Jonathan Groves, communications professor at Drury University and president of the Missouri Sunshine Coalition, said the Sunshine Law hasn’t kept up with changing technology. He believes the issue will ultimately be decided by the courts.
“And until that’s done, you’re in this legal gray area, because no one has made a decision on it,” Groves said.
Information from: The Kansas City Star, http://www.kcstar.com