Sunshine Law Applies to Government Journalists, Too
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE, is a national group that broadly speaking defends the speech rights of faculty and students in the education setting. In general I’m quite supportive of that mission, but recently FIRE’s agenda has come into conflict with another policy priority, government transparency. FIRE has been surprisingly critical of outgoing Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, who has been seeking emails sent to and from journalism professors at the University of Missouri, a public institution subject to the Sunshine Law. It’s an open-and-shut case of government transparency, but FIRE appears to be putting the interests of government employees over those of the public.
A push by the attorney general’s office for the emails of professors and staff at the University of Missouri has academic freedom advocates concerned the office is being weaponized to stifle free speech and deter researchers’ work.
In June, Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt’s office sent two records requests to the university….
“When I see these requests, it really makes me worried about how this kind of request for faculty information can be used to burden faculty or hassle them where they’re engaging in research or scholarship that state actors might disagree with,” said Anne Marie Tamburro, program officer for student press and campus rights advocacy at the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, known as FIRE.
Your mileage will vary on the utility of the Attorney General’s undertaking. Indeed, the vast majority of the public has little interest in the behind-the-scenes decision-making of Mizzou journalism professors. But that has zero bearing on the facts of this case, namely that (1) the people of Missouri fund their public universities through their tax dollars; (2) the people have the right to be informed about the activities of their public employees insofar as they relate to their public functions; and (3) the Attorney General has the same right to use the Sunshine Law as anyone else, and a greater responsibility to do so where he deems the public interest requires it.
Academic freedom is an important principle, but all it means is that professors at public universities should have the discretion to research and discuss their ideas within the limits of the policies set by those constituted in authority over them. It doesn’t mean that they are exempt from the rules of transparency that apply to all those who work for the taxpayer. If their work would be “deterred” (to use FIRE’s word) unless they can conduct it in secret, maybe it’s work that shouldn’t be done, at least on the public’s dime.
FIRE should be considering the full public policy picture here rather than acting as an apologist for secrecy against the clear interests of transparency under an otherwise unambiguous law.