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Associated Press Request Legislators' Computer Records

February 20, 2002
By: Brian Connolly
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - A request for records of Missouri legislators' Internet activity drew different responses from House and Senate record custodians, and strong opinions from some lawmakers.

In written requests filed on Feb. 15, the Associated Press asked for copies of "cookie files, cache files and history files" from computers assigned to members of the Missouri legislature. These files are records of visited Websites. The requests were filed with the clerk in the Missouri House of Representatives and the administrator of the Missouri Senate under the state's Sunshine Law governing access to public records.

House clerk Ted Wedel has indicated he will grant the request if the AP pays the estimated cost of $7,007.75.

Senate Administrator Michael Keathley, carrying out the decision of the Senate Administration Committee, issued a letter to the AP on Wednesday stating the request was "fairly broad and appears to include information outside the public record."

Keathley wrote the AP that he was "researching the issue to determine exactly what information should be provided in response to your request."

The AP will take the Senate decision under advisement, said Paul Stevens, the wire service's bureau chief in Kansas City. Stevens wouldn't say what prompted the request in the first place and said there were no definite plans to write a story based on the information requested. As a matter of policy the AP doesn't comment on works in progress, Stephens said.

Earlier in the day members of the Missouri House expressed concern about the scope of the request.

"Even though they have a right to it, I don't think it's proper," said Rep. Quincy Troupe, D-St. Louis.

Troupe said the request is a misuse of power and First Amendment rights given to the press. He called the AP request a "witch hunt".

"They're the damn terrorists," Troupe said.

Rep. Chuck Graham, D-Columbia, said he thinks the request goes too far. Graham said the records don't necessarily reflect members' activity on the Internet. For instance, he allows constituents and interns to use his computer.

"You might as well give the AP the right to rummage through my desk drawers as well," Graham said.

Legally, computer files are different than what's in a legislator's desk, said Jean Maneke, attorney for the Missouri Press Association.

"I would argue that the difference is that the public is not the custodian of what's in his desk," Maneke said. "The public is the custodian of what's in the state computer system."

Charles Davis, executive director of the Freedom of Information Center at MU, said he hopes the request is based on "journalistic probable cause" rather than a desire to troll for information.

"I think that exceeds our role somewhat," Davis said.

Davis said he feared the request would lead to a legislative backlash resulting in weakening of the Sunshine Law.