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Schmitt targets journalism professors, fact-checkers in 'over-the-top' email 'fishing expedition,' press experts say

Missouri's Attorney General is supposed to enforce the state's Sunshine Act laws to ensure transparency. He's using it to target journalists' emails.

COLUMBIA, Missouri — Missouri's Attorney General Eric Schmitt is using his government office to target journalists' emails housed on university computer servers. 

According to emails published in the Columbia Missourian and detailed by the Associated Press, an attorney in Schmitt's office ordered journalism professors to hand over their emails, which press advocates believe could include conversations with students, sources, and whistleblowers. 

"Anytime a reporter is asked to disclose anything about source information or advice they've been given, that puts the reporter in a difficult position," attorney Jean Maneke said.

Maneke is an expert attorney who answers questions on a hotline for the Missouri Press Association. 

"I did get calls from a number of reporters at the Missourian concerned about what this might mean to them in terms of their gathering of data," she told 5 On Your Side.

Journalists often rely on the state's Sunshine Law to obtain access to documents of significant public interest. As the state's top lawyer, part of Schmitt's job is to enforce the state's Sunshine Law to help reporters get answers for the public when government bureaucrats withhold information or refuse to respond. Now, he's deploying attorneys in his government office to track down emails from journalism professors and their colleagues.

"It's very possible that he's looking to find out who the Missourian is talking to, in terms of its sources of information," Maneke said. 

In a July 28 email, Schmitt's office ordered two University of Missouri journalism professors and an executive editor at PolitiFact to hand over all emails in their inbox, regardless of whether they were sent or received, that include keywords like "fact-checking," "the future of political reporting," or "political speech."

Initially, the university said the search produces thousands of results, so Schmitt's office narrowed the request to exclude widely distributed newsletters.

The university has referred the matter to outside counsel as it reviews the emails to screen for private, protected information, such as student identities, according to the Missourian. Those emails could also include sensitive information not intended for publication, like sources passing on private tips or whistleblowers providing government documents. 

Reporters who work for private companies would not be subject to the state's Sunshine Law, but students and professors at the Columbia Missourian use public resources to do to their work.

"All of that is subject to whether or not it's going through the Missouri University computers, which is greatly troubling because these reporters have First Amendment rights," Maneke said. 

She questioned whether Schmitt's search was a "fishing expedition" intended to make a broader political point during his campaign for the U.S. Senate. 

Schmitt has previously used open records laws to zero in on people or content he perceives as a political target, like teachers or public school curriculum about race. 

Schmitt's search targeted emails sent over a four-year span. In that time, PolitiFact only fact-checked his claims once and found it "Mostly True." Earlier this year, it fact-checked a political ad about him and found it "Half True."

It remains unclear precisely what Schmitt is after, but a spokesman for his office told the Associated Press he was "simply trying to get to the bottom of the fact-checking process."

Press advocates questioned whether it was appropriate for Schmitt to use an arm of the state to pursue reporter's records. 

"It creates a presumption that he thinks this is something that state government has an interest in," Maneke said, "whereas if he had done this through his campaign committee, it would have a whole different tone."

"That's a mechanism of the government trying to limit what anyone -- whether it's a newspaper or any individual -- has a right to say in speech," she said.

The traditional powers of the Attorney General's office include a criminal and civil division, and it has vast duties, including representing state agencies and defending state laws in court, cracking down on scammers, polluters, or corruption in campaigns.

The law allows anyone in Missouri to seek public records in their capacity as a private citizen, so why would the state's top lawyer use his government position, and not a campaign office, to fish for emails about "political speech?"

When 5 On Your Side asked Schmitt's office to explain where this search falls within his official duties as Attorney General, he had no answer. 

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