Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt filed an open court request seeking correspondence between two journalism professors connected to the University of Missouri and the executive director of a fact-checking group.
In a move that appears to be unprecedented in Missouri, Schmitt, a Republican running for the U.S. Senate, filed a request in June seeking three years of emails sent and received by professors while working at the Columbia Missourian.
Most correspondence generated at private media companies isn’t subject to the state open archives law, but the Missourian might be because it’s attached to the University of Missouri, which is a public entity.
The Missourian is not supervised by university officials, but most of its staff is made up of students working to earn credit toward a journalism degree. Professional editors work as university faculty members.
David Kurpius, dean of the Missouri School of Journalism, said the school hired outside legal counsel to determine which emails could be released to the attorney general. Some records, such as those that identify students’ personal information, are protected by federal law.
Jean Maneke, an attorney with the Missouri Press Association, said the request puts the university in “uncharted territory” because most public institutions don’t have reporters attached. She was unaware of similar requests in the past.
“There are no clear instructions on what they have to do when faced with these kinds of parameters,” Maneke said.
The request was first reported by the Missourian, who discovered it after filing an unrelated open records request.
Schmitt’s spokesman, Chris Nuelle, said in a statement that the attorney general is “just trying to get to the bottom of the fact-checking process.” He declined to answer any further questions.
Schmitt previously used open records laws to seek copies of documents, emails and other resources that discuss race in school districts as part of a push targeting “critical race theory.” He also opened a “transparency portal” to let parents see his efforts.
In the latest request, Schmitt is looking for any email correspondence from June 15, 2018, sent to or from Mike Jenner, Tom Warhover, who previously worked with the Missourian, and Aaron Sharockman, the executive director of PolitiFact.
Warhover, an associate professor at the university, served as Missourian’s editor for 16 years before stepping down in 2017. Jenner, a board member of the Missourian Publishing Association, a nonprofit that governs Missourian, took over from Warhover for about two years.
Warhover noted that the fact-checking course involving PolitiFact has not been offered for about a year and a half. He didn’t see a similar request during his years at Missourian.
“My initial and ongoing reaction is one of confusion,” Warhover said. “What the Attorney General would want with this is confusing.”
Sharockman told the Missourian in an emailed statement that Politifact does not use confidential information and publishes a list of sources with each story.
“Our methods and reporting are transparent, and we would be happy to sit down with the Attorney General at any time to discuss our work or his ideas for continued responsible journalism,” he said.
Maneke noted that the Attorney General’s Office is one of the primary entities advising citizens and enforcing the state’s Sunshine Law. In this case, Schmitt appears to be using the law as a “ram” against the university and the journalists housed there, she said.
“It creates a real conflict of interest in what the Attorney General does and how citizens see the Attorney General’s office as an advocate for Sunshine Law,” she said.
Kurpius said the school will comply with any decisions made by its legal team about which records to release. He noted that the journalism school often uses the Freedom of Information Act and strongly supports open records laws.
“We also obviously believe in the process of journalism,” Kurpius said. “Fact-checking, making sure we’re doing things right is important to having the trust of the public we serve.”