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story.lead_photo.caption Gov. Mike Parson listens as a member of the media asks a question during a press conference in his Jefferson City, Mo., Capitol office Wednesday, May 29, 2019. (Julie Smith/The Jefferson City News-Tribune via AP)

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) -- Missouri Gov. Mike Parson should not use the First Amendment to justify refusing to release certain public records, the state attorney general's office said in a letter to the governor's office.

Parson's office has cited the First Amendment when denying Sunshine Law requests for information on private citizens who contacted the governor's office. The governor argued that he redacted information such as phone numbers, addresses and emails because citizens wouldn't reach out to his office if they knew their personal information might become public.

State Auditor Nicole Galloway, a Democratic candidate for governor, asked Attorney General Eric Schmitt in May for an opinion on whether Parson violated the state's Sunshine Law by redacting the public information.

Galloway said in a statement Friday that Schmitt's letter "confirms Gov. Parson was wrong to withhold information from the public."

"Nonpartisan advocates for government transparency and legal experts all agree the Governor's actions were unlawful," she said.

Deputy Attorney General Justin Smith wrote in the letter to Parson's office and to Galloway's office Thursday that the governor should not "rely on the First Amendment for blanket redactions of personal contact information," noting that Missouri's Sunshine Law "declares our state's commitment to openness in government," The Kansas City Star reported.

Transparency advocates also criticized Parson's policy, saying it was an obvious violation of the open records law.

Parson's spokeswoman, Kelli Jones, said in a statement Friday that the governor has never redacted people's names or the content of their communications.

"When certain personal information is redacted, however, it is always intended to protect people from the potential of harassment, and this administration is redacting the same information as the other administrations in past years," Jones said. "While we respect Attorney General Schmitt's opinion, it is important to note that he highlights a lack of clarity in the law."

In its letter, the attorney general's office noted previous Missouri court rulings involving public entities asserting a constitutional right to privacy to protect personal information sought by a Sunshine Law requests.

"Missouri courts have repeatedly ordered disclosure of personal contact information in response to Sunshine Law requests," the letter stated.

Courts have allowed redaction of personal information in specific instances, but "not as a blanket approach," Smith wrote. For example, an appeals court found that the name of a crime victim who could identify a suspect who is in custody is not a public record.

The Sunshine Law also already includes protections for personal information such as social security numbers, credit card numbers and PIN numbers, the attorney general's office wrote.

Schmitt, a Republican, cited the First Amendment earlier this month while blocking the release of certain records in a lawsuit against a legislator in southeast Missouri but he withdrew the legal brief a few days later.

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