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Editorial: Parson's attempt to shift blame for faulty teacher website must be condemned

As recently as Tuesday, the Social Security numbers of tens of thousands of Missouri teachers were accessible to anyone with a web browser and an internet connection. Thanks to a St. Louis journalist, they're better protected today.

That personal information was available, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, through an online application that allowed the public to search the credentials and certifications of state educators. Social Security numbers were not shown as part of the default display, the paper reported, but were present in the source code, which can be freely viewed by anyone with browser apps like Safari, Firefox and Chrome.

When a journalist discovered the flaw and confirmed the information with several teachers, the Post-Dispatch alerted the state and waited until the problem was corrected before publishing a story.

Gov. Mike Parson's response? Holding a press conference during which he called the Post-Dispatch journalist a "hacker," threatened him with criminal prosecution and accused the newspaper of trying to "embarrass the state."

The governor is doing a fine job of that on his own.

First Amendment: Here are the rights we enjoy – and must protect

Perhaps it's too much to ask that the man holding Missouri's highest office have a passing understanding of computers and the internet. But basic knowledge of the law and the ability to accept responsibility for the state's shortcomings ought to be among the minimum qualifications for the job.

Instead, Parson put his ignorance on full display, accusing the Post-Dispatch of somehow stealing information state employees left unattended on the virtual curb.

Related: Parson says Missouri is pursuing prosecution after St. Louis reporter finds state data flaw

To anyone at all familiar with how websites work, Parson's accusations are farcical – akin to accusing a passer-by of burglary because they called police to report the front door of the Governor's Mansion hanging open.

Instead of revealing the governor's backside, the state's carelessness put teachers' information at risk. The Post-Dispatch, by alerting the state to the vulnerability and holding publication, conducted itself responsibly. In trying to shift the blame, Parson has done the opposite.

Unfortunately, Parson's brazen propaganda was at least partially effective, prompting some television news outlets to run headlines like "Hackers steal personal information from 3 teachers off Missouri's Department of Education website."

One hopes that more reasonable – and computer-savvy – heads prevail if the Missouri State Highway Patrol investigates. Heaven help us if Cole County Prosecutor Locke Thompson stoops to filing criminal charges against a reporter trying to perform a public service.

I refused to lie under oath for my job: My employer, the state of Arizona, singled me out. The courts are not on my side.

To be clear, though, this is not harmless buffoonery. In a transparent attempt to avoid accountability, Missouri's chief executive threatened to deploy the powers of the state to retaliate against a journalist who accessed publicly available information and identified a problem. Such abuse must be condemned, swiftly and in the strongest terms.

No one expects Parson to thank a newspaper for uncovering a state agency's failures – failures that, according to his own estimation, could cost $50 million to correct. But it seems he could at least admit the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education's website was too light on security and assure the thousands of hard-working teachers that his administration will make things right.

Rather than threatening to prosecute the people who pointed out the problem, he should be thankful he was alerted by someone who had Missouri teachers' safety in mind.

This editorial is the view of the News-Leader Editorial Board, consisting of Editor-in-Chief Amos Bridges and content coaches Stephen Herzog and Harrison Keegan.