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Missouri Attorney General's probe of university emails criticized for 'invading academic freedom'

Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt at a senate candidate forum in St. Charles at the state GOP's annual Lincoln Days on Feb. 12, 2022.
Eric Schmid
St. Louis Public Radio
Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt at a senate candidate forum in St. Charles at the state GOP's annual Lincoln Days on Feb. 12, 2022. U.S. Reps. Billy Long and Vicky Hartzler and Attorney Mark McCloskey also attended the candidate forum.

Eric Schmitt’s office appears to be targeting the journalistic fact-checking process and research into social emotional learning at the University of Missouri, but has offered little public explanation for the requests. Free speech advocates say it's a “shocking” overstep of his authority.

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.

The first sought three-and-a-half years of emails sent to two staff members and a postdoctoral researcher, with the target appearing to be a university research program that aims to help teachers learn skills to promote social emotional learning among their students.

The second asked for four years of emails from two Missouri School of Journalism professors and the executive director of the fact-checking website, PolitiFact. The PolitiFact request was first reported by The Columbia Missourian.

Schmitt’s office has offered little public explanation for why it’s seeking the records, saying in a brief statement to The Kansas City Star on the PolitiFact request that it was “simply trying to get to the bottom of the fact checking process.”

A spokesman for Schmitt did not respond to requests for comment.

But to free speech advocates, Schmitt’s requests are a “shocking” overstep of his authority.

“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.

Chuck Hatfield, a Jefferson City attorney who worked in the attorney general’s office under Democrat Jay Nixon, said, “it is very clear to me that the attorney general is trying to use his office to advance his specific political agenda.”

“And it’s not proper,” Hatfield said.

In both open records requests, Schmitt’s general counsel — James “Jay” Atkins — argued the records were being sought in the public interest because “they are likely to contribute to a better understanding of the operations or activities” of the School of Medicine and School of Journalism.

They were the only two requests sent by Schmitt’s office to the University of Missouri System since the start of the year. Copies of both were obtained by The Independent through a separate request under the Sunshine Law.

‘The requests themselves are chilling enough’

The University of Missouri-Columbia and the other three UM System campuses are bracing for cuts because of COVID-19.
KBIA File Photo
The University of Missouri-Columbia and the other three UM System campuses are bracing for cuts because of COVID-19.

The requests to MU aren’t the first time Missouri’s Sunshine Law has been a tool for an investigation by the attorney general’s office.

Schmitt, who is also the GOP nominee for U.S. Senate, blanketed local school districts across the state with open records requests over their policies related to masking, diversity and inclusion and textbook titles.

The office also issued civil investigative demands to a St. Louis education consultant and a Boston-based education data analytics company as part of an investigation into student surveys issued by school districts.

Hatfield noted civil investigative demands are typically deployed to investigate fraud, calling Schmitt’s frequent use of Sunshine Law requests “highly unusual.”

“Doing stuff like this, I think, jeopardizes the credibility of the office,” Hatfield said, “and makes it harder for the attorney general to be taken seriously when they’re enforcing the real responsibilities: protecting consumers, defending the states from lawsuits, prosecuting environmental violations, those sorts of things.”

Atkins’ first request to the university was sent June 6. It asked for emails since Jan. 1, 2019, that contained six keywords, including terms like “social emotional learning,” “positive school climate,” and “Show-Me ECHO Social Emotional Learning.” Atkins asked for any communications where a party’s email address ended in “.edu” and were sent to or from Joe Kingsbury, ECHO partner management specialist, Lindsey Beckmann, associate director of outreach and replication, and Nicole Brass, a postdoctoral fellow in the College of Education & Human Development who oversees research on the “ECHO: Prosocial and Positive School Climate” program.

In early August, over 8,000 pages of emails and records were provided to Schmitt’s office by the university, documenting the day-to-day scheduling and organizing of sessions for the research program, grant proposals, drafts of research papers and findings and fliers and materials for the program. Emails from students and additional faculty were also included in the thousands of records provided.

ECHO, which stands for Extension for Community Healthcare Outcomes, is a model that was originally developed by the University of New Mexico to help connect and educate under-resourced physicians with new research practices that they could then implement with their patients.

The videoconferencing learning sessions have been deployed through the Missouri Telehealth Network at the University of Missouri School of Medicine since 2014 and center on over three dozen topics, like treating opioid use disorders, serving those in foster care and caring for children with autism, according to the program’s website.

Brass said she was not aware of the request or that her emails were provided to the attorney general’s office until contacted by The Independent. She declined to comment further. Kingsbury and Beckmann also did not respond to requests for comment.

The university’s custodian of records noted in the response to Atkins that some records were closed under exceptions allowed under the Sunshine Law for personnel records, and to comply with the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act and copyright laws.

While Schmitt’s office did not shed light on the aims of his open records requests, the academic concept of social emotional learning has been in his crosshairs before.

In June, at the urging of a conservative Georgia legal nonprofit, Schmitt subpoenaed seven school districts over student surveys they issued. The legal nonprofit, Southeastern Legal Foundation, described social emotional learning as “really just thinly disguised political indoctrination” in its 23-page letter urging Schmitt to investigate schools over the surveys.

As of mid-September, communications had still not been provided to the attorney general’s office in response to its June 15 request regarding the School of Journalism’s partnership with PolitiFact. The request asked for emails that featured 10 keywords, including “fake news,” fact-checking” and “Truth-O-Meter.”

Tom Warhover, an associate professor at the Missouri School of Journalism who previously taught the PolitiFact class on fact checking and was named in the request, said he was notified of it in the fall, and expressed confusion as to “what the A.G.’s office could possibly want with old emails about a class that hasn’t even been taught for the past year and a half.”

“The whole thing leaves me less chilled than confused,” said Warhover, who is also the editor-at-large at the Reynolds Journalism Institute. “I’ll continue to teach the process of fact-checking in my other classes.”

Risa Lieberwitz, general counsel for the American Association of University Professors, said the request, “raises very serious questions about whether the attorney general is invading academic freedom.”

For universities to carry out their mission to teach and conduct research in the public interest, faculty doing that work must, “have the academic freedom to do their research and their teaching without censorship, without governmental intervention into their teaching or research agendas,” Lieberwitz said, “and without public records that are invasive in a way that violates their academic freedom.”

Free and open discussion of research and projects pre-publication is essential, Lieberwitz said, noting that faculty also have academic freedom related to the university administration, as well as the state. In some states, such as Virginia and Arizona, courts have blocked records requests for faculty members’ emails related to their research.

Asked if the university takes any steps to ensure it’s taking into consideration the academic freedom of its staff and students when responding to open records requests, Christian Basi, a spokesman for the university, said: “We comply with the state law. What the Sunshine Law provides us and tells us we have to give, we give.”

Tamburro said FIRE would like to see the university take the initiative to protect its professors and students targeted in open records requests from the attorney general and ensure it is lending its platform to support its professors whose work could easily be taken out of context and warped for political reasons.

She worries that even if communications are not handed over in response to these requests, the damage will have been done.

“I think the requests themselves,” Tamburro said, “are chilling enough.”

This story was originally published on the Missouri Independent.

Editor’s note: Reporter Tessa Weinberg is a University of Missouri graduate who took the School of Journalism’s class on fact-checking with PolitiFact in 2017. The Independent’s Jason Hancock contributed to this story.

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