Open Records and Data Privacy Legislation in Missouri
The Missouri Sunshine Law is an open records access and data privacy law that was initially passed in 1973. Notably, the law was passed in conjunction with the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) that was passed 6 years prior in 1966, as the state of Missouri was one of the first jurisdictions within the U.S. to pass similar legislation at the state level. With all this being said, the provisions of the law establish the procedures that must be followed when looking to access public records and government information, including the fees that are associated with such requests, as well as the public records that are exempt from public access, inspection, and copying, among other things.
How are public records defined under the law?
Under the Missouri Sunshine Law, a public record is defined as “any record, whether written or electronically stored, retained by or of any public governmental body including any report, survey, memorandum, or other document or study prepared for the public governmental body by a consultant or other professional service paid for in whole or in part by public funds, including records created or maintained by private contractors under an agreement with a public governmental body or on behalf of a public governmental body; provided, however, that personally identifiable student records maintained by public educational institutions shall be open for inspection by the parents, guardians or other custodian of students under the age of eighteen years.”
What are the duties of records custodians under the law?
The Missouri Sunshine Law mandates that records custodians within the state adhere to the following requirements as it pertains to the accessibility of the public records that are in the possession of said individuals:
- Public bodies within the state of Missouri are required to designate a records custodian that will be in charge of facilitating public access to the numerous records that are maintained by said organizations. Furthermore, records custodians are required to develop and maintain a Sunshine Law policy that will detail the steps that a person must take in order to access the public records that are maintained by said custodians.
- Records custodians are responsible for redacting any confidential information that may be contained within the public records they maintain before disclosing said records to the general public.
- Records custodians must make their public records accessible to all members of the general public, including media members and non-residents of the state of Missouri.
- Records custodians have an obligation to respond to all requests for access to their public records as soon as possible, but no later than three business days after receiving such a request.
- The provisions of the law apply to all public records that are in the possession of records custodians within the state, irrespective of the format in which they are maintained.
- Records custodians are prohibited from destroying public records in an effort to avoid or deter a records request.
- Records custodians are forbidden from limiting the manner in which a member of the general public uses the public records that have been requested.
What public records are exempt from disclosure under the law?
On the other hand, the Missouri Sunshine Law also outlines a wide range of public records that are exempt from public disclosure under the law and must instead remain confidential. For instance, electronic healthcare records (EHR) are exempt from public disclosure under the law, in accordance with the provisions of the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA). Conversely, the law also forbids records custodians from disclosing educational records, in conjunction with the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). To this end, some additional exemptions that are set forth in the law include:
- Militia and national guard information.
- Professional examination materials.
- The names of charity donors.
- State security information.
- Non-approved competitive bidding information.
- Welfare information.
- Credit card numbers and PINs.
- Real estate transactions.
- Public safety or law enforcement plans.
- Certain computer operations.
What are the penalties for violating the law?
In terms of the enforcement of the law, the various sections of the Missouri Sunshine Law are enforced by the state attorney general. However, while the state attorney general has the authority to impose the law, aggrieved parties within the state have historically brought forth civil charges against records custodians that have violated their rights under the law. With all this being said, individuals and organizations that fail to comply with the law are subject to monetary penalties of up to $1,000 for knowingly breaking the law, as well as monetary penalties of up to $5,000 for purposely violating the law. What’s more, aggrieved parties are also entitled to injunctive relief, as well as reasonable attorney fees that may be associated with any of the legal remedies available.
The provisions of the Missouri Sunshine Law grant both residents and non-residents of the state the right to access the public records of the various government agencies and institutions that serve citizens within said state. Moreover, the penalties that can be imposed against individuals and organizations that are found to be in violation of the law are rather stringent when compared to many other sunshine laws that have been passed by state legislatures around the country. To this point, the law stands as one of the foremost means by which citizens of the state can exercise their political power.