JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — State capitols are often referred to as “the people’s house,” but legislatures frequently put up no-trespassing signs by exempting themselves from public-records laws.
That tendency was apparent when the Associated Press sought e-mails and daily schedules of legislative leaders in all 50 states. The request was met with more denials than approvals.
Some lawmakers claimed “legislative immunity” from the public-records laws that apply to most state and local officials.
Others said secrecy was essential to the deliberative process of making laws. And some feared that releasing the records could invade the privacy of citizens, creating a ‘‘chilling effect’’ on the right of people to petition their government.
Without access to such records, it’s harder for the public to know who is trying to influence their lawmakers on important policy decisions.
A bill advancing this year in Massachusetts would strengthen the state’s public-records laws by limiting fees and setting new deadlines for state agencies and municipalities to comply. Yet it would continue to exempt lawmakers.
Democratic Senate President Stan Rosenberg and Republican Governor Charlie Baker also agreed — the latter in part — to the AP’s request to release a week’s worth of e-mails and daily schedules despite stating their own exemptions from the records law.
“The public has a right to know what their elected officials are doing because it’s the people’s job to hold those folks politically accountable,” said Peter Scheer, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, a San Rafael, Calif.-based nonprofit that seeks government openness.
All legislatures allow people to watch and listen to their debates. But an AP review of open-government policies found that many state legislatures allow closed-door caucus meetings in which a majority of lawmakers discuss policy positions before public debates.
Others have restrictions on taking photos and videos of legislative proceedings. In some places, lawmakers have no obligation to disclose financial information that could reveal conflicts of interest.
Legislators possess the power to change that but are sometimes reluctant to act.
That mirrors the way things work in Washington. Congress exempted itself when it passed the national Freedom of Information Act 50 years ago. The president and his immediate staff also are exempt. By contrast, many governors are subject to state sunshine laws.
In many states, the requirements passed by lawmakers present “a stunning contradiction,” said Charles Davis, dean of the College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia and a former executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition.
“I have just always found it astonishing that they would put those requirements on public officials throughout government and exempt themselves at the same time,” he said.
To gauge compliance with public-records laws, the AP sent requests to the top Democratic and Republican lawmakers in all states and most governors seeking copies of their daily schedules and e-mails from their government accounts for the week of Feb. 1 to Feb. 7.
Of the more than 170 lawmakers who responded by mid-March, a majority denied the requests by claiming they were legally exempt. The governors were slower to respond but more often provided the information.
The legislative denials came from lawmakers of both parties, although slightly more from Republicans. In states where some lawmakers said “yes” and others “no,” it was more often the majority party lawmakers who denied the requests while a minority party leader complied.
In Missouri, Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard was asked in front of dozens of reporters and editors whether he would release his government e-mails and daily calendars.
“All you have to do is ask for it, and I’ll give it to you. I don’t care,” Richard told those attending a statewide press association event in February.
Yet when the AP subsequently submitted an open-records request, Richard reversed course. A Senate administrator responded on his behalf with a letter saying that individual lawmakers aren’t subject to the Missouri Sunshine Law.
Richard, who is in his first year as the Senate’s top lawmaker, explained that he learned his predecessors had determined they were exempt, and he didn’t want to break with precedent.
“I’m telling you I don’t hide anything in my e-mails. I just don’t do that,” said Richard, a Republican from Joplin.
Mississippi House Speaker Philip Gunn responded by asserting his e-mails and calendars were his personal property, not subject to the Mississippi Public Records Act and protected “under the doctrine of legislative immunity” dating back hundreds of years to English common law.
Denial letters on behalf of Illinois’s top Democratic and Republican lawmakers said, among other things, that releasing the records could amount to a “clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy” for individuals who contacted lawmakers without expecting their names to appear in the news media.