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Missouri Supreme Court case could relax rules on how elected officials talk about ballot issues

The Missouri Supreme Court
File photo / Marshall Griffin
St. Louis Public Radio
The judges of the Missouri Supreme Court will hear arguments on Tuesday in a case that deals with the speech of local government officials.

The Missouri Supreme Court will hear arguments Tuesday in a case that could shape how local elected officials are able to talk about ballot issues.

Six elected officials from the St. Louis County area brought the lawsuit in 2019. It challenges a state lawthat says officers, employees or agents of political subdivisions, such as cities or school districts, cannot spend public money to “advocate, support, or oppose the passage or defeat of any ballot measure or the nomination or election of any candidate for public office.” Violations of the law are a Class 4 election offense, a misdemeanor punishable by less than a year in jail or fines of up to $2,500.

“Cities want to be very cautious that they comply with the law and don’t use public money to advocate,” said Richard Sheets, executive director of the Missouri Municipal League. “But the problem we have, the law is vague. Advocacy means different things to different people.”

Cole County Judge Cotton Walker agreed that the law violated the free speech rights of elected officials and blocked the state from enforcing it.

“[The law] regulates the speech of the individual plaintiffs based on the content of that speech, and is not narrowly tailored to serve a compelling government interest,” Walker wrote in an April ruling. “It violates the 1st Amendment rights of the individual plaintiffs, and therefore is unconstitutional and void.”

The state appealed Walker’s ruling.

“Allowing political subdivisions to use public funds to electioneer subverts the democratic process," Michael Talent, a deputy solicitor general, wrote in a brief filed with the state Supreme Court. “By employing the vast resources of government to push for a particular electoral result, public officials could drown out opposing voices.”

Walker also ruled the law was unconstitutionally vague, which Washington University law professor Greg Magarian called “a stretch.”

“This is a law aimed at the conduct of government officials using conventional legal terms,” he said. “If anybody should have the capacity to read a law and parse its terms and understand what they are or are not able to do, it should be a government official.”

The Supreme Court will issue a ruling at a later date.

Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann 

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.