‘Attempted intimidation’: Missouri AG sent five requests for MSU emails, records

Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt’s office said a request for a professor’s emails was ‘part of a fact-finding process.’ The professor said it felt like attempted intimidation for criticisms of Schmitt on social media

By: - October 19, 2022 5:55 am

The requests to Missouri State University came months ahead of two highly criticized open records requests Attorney General Eric Schmitt’s office sent to the University of Missouri (Madeline Carter/Missouri Independent).

Jon Turner isn’t shy about sharing his opinion.

An associate professor at Missouri State University in Springfield, Turner’s personal social media is typically filled with articles he shares about education or about his research focus of four-day school weeks.

But occasionally Turner dips into politics, especially after Attorney General Eric Schmitt began suing, subpoenaing and investigating public schools.

In April, after Schmitt launched a platform for parents to report “divisive” curriculum in their student’s school, Turner mused on Twitter that Schmitt used to be known as a moderate in the state legislature.

“…now as our ATTORNEY GENERAL he is so ANTI-TEACHER I just can’t wrap my mind around the flip-flop,” wrote Turner, a former school administrator and teacher for 25 years. “I’m working to make sure this dangerous, hateful political jellyfish never gets elected to anything again.”

A few days after that tweet, Missouri State University (MSU) got a letter from the attorney general’s office requesting all of Turner’s emails over the previous three months.

Contacted about the request for Turner’s emails last week by The Independent, Chris Nuelle, a spokesman for Schmitt, said it was, “a part of a fact-finding process we undertook that was looking into the practices and policies of education in our state.”

Turner says his research — which focuses on challenges facing rural schools and the four-day school week — isn’t something the attorney general’s office would be concerned with.

“I have no idea if Eric Schmitt even knows who I am,” Turner said.

As he reflected a bit more, Turner said he has come to believe the request for his emails was spurred by his public criticism of Schmitt, who is running as the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate.

“I perceived it as a shot across my bow to say, ‘Hey, buddy, we’re watching you. And you are on our radar.’ And so I took it as an attempted intimidation factor,” Turner said. “But I will say that it probably had the exact opposite impact and that I’ve been probably even much more vocal in my concerns about the attorney general politicizing his position.”

The request for Turner’s emails was just one of five open records requests that Schmitt’s office sent to Missouri State University since the start of the year, according to records obtained by The Independent under the Sunshine Law.

Requests filed in late March and April sought professors’ emails and documents related to a “Facing Racism Institute” training for Springfield Public Schools and communications with the district; an administrator’s emails that had keywords associated with the Missouri School Boards Association, as well as correspondence with Nixa School Board members; and materials related to a Department of Homeland Security grant awarded to the university that aims to protect against radicalization to white supremacy.

A spokeswoman for MSU said the university had no comment about the attorney general’s requests.

The requests to MSU came months ahead of two highly criticized open records requests Schmitt’s office sent to the University of Missouri — one for professors’ emails related to a journalism course on fact-checking and another targeting a research program that helps teachers implement social emotional learning in their classrooms.

Schmitt’s education lawsuits

Some of the requests appear to dovetail with ongoing lawsuits the attorney general’s office is pursuing, although Nuelle declined to comment on the scope of the requests.

In two requests focused on the “Facing Racism Institute,” Justin Smith, Schmitt’s chief of staff, asked for a litany of records, including emails, training materials and a “debrief document” following a training the institute facilitated for Springfield Public Schools in 2019. 

Schmitt sued Springfield Public Schools last year alleging the district didn’t turn over records related to the training.

A spokesman for Springfield Public Schools declined comment, citing the ongoing litigation.

Asked about the office’s request seeking documents related to the Department of Homeland Security grant, Nuelle referenced to the Springfield News-Leader an ongoing federal lawsuit against the Biden administration and social media companies alleging collusion to censor certain topics.

The additional records requests that sought emails from Turner and Brent Dunn, Missouri State University’s vice president for university advancement, were later revised to include certain keywords, like “Missouri School Board Association” — another entity Schmitt’s office has sued over alleged Sunshine Law violations.

On Monday, a Boone County Circuit Court judge granted the association’s motion to dismiss the case. A separate but similar lawsuit filed against the Missouri School Boards’ Association by a conservative Georgia legal nonprofit was also dismissed in late August

The request for Dunn’s emails also specifically asked for any correspondence between March and early April between six current and former Nixa School Board members. Dunn, who also serves on the Nixa School Board, declined to comment and said communications related to his duties on the school board now run through the Nixa Public Schools’ system.

The keywords Schmitt’s office used in its revised request were puzzling, Turner said, because the only organization listed that he remains involved with is the Missouri Association of Rural Education. 

And that search term was also ultimately removed due to the volume of records it produced. The remaining records — which included keywords like Missouri School Board Association and Missouri National Education Association — produced fewer than 100 results in a preliminary search.

Turner said after his emails were provided to Schmitt’s office, he never heard anything about the request again. He wonders if Schmitt’s office has done anything with his emails after receiving them.

In his three decades as an educator, Turner said he always felt that every elected official — regardless of party — was an ally for public education and saw it as a public good. 

But in recent years, he said it feels like politicians are only interested in their next office. 

“And that’s the part that is just most disappointing and stunning to me,” he said. “I just can’t imagine how we’ve gotten that far.”

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Tessa Weinberg
Tessa Weinberg

Tessa Weinberg covered education, health care and the legislature with the Missouri Independent. She previously covered the Missouri statehouse for The Kansas City Star and The Columbia Missourian, where her reporting into social media use by the governor prompted an investigation by the Attorney General’s office. She also covered state government in Texas for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram.