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Free speech cases with Missouri connections make waves in federal courts

Andrew Bailey, newly appointed Missouri Attorney General, speaks to the media on Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2023, after being sworn in as the state’s 44th attorney general at the Missouri Supreme Court in Jefferson City.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
On July 4, in a lawsuit brought by Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey, a federal judge ruled that the government cannot ask social media companies to remove content. Bailey had argued that official attempts to flag pandemic and election misinformation was a "seed of suppression" and censorship.

Two recent, major legal rulings in federal court involving the First Amendment have Missouri connections — and experts say they pose substantial implications for the right to free expression.

U.S. District Judge Terry Doughty in Louisiana issued a ruling in a lawsuit that was originally filed by Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey. The lawsuit accused the federal government of coercing social media companies to remove content about the COVID-19 vaccines, the origin of the virus, or could affect elections.

The order, which temporarily blocks government contact with social media companies, was surprising in its scope, said Greg Magarian, a law professor and First Amendment scholar at Washington University.

"It is a very sweeping and consequential order,” Magarian told St. Louis on the Air. “I don't know of any precedent like this, where a court essentially told the government, ‘You can't even communicate … the government's point of view about whether certain content should be available.’"

A second major development with First Amendment implications was revealed June 30 in the U.S. Supreme Court. The justices ruled in favor of an evangelical Christian web designer, Lorie Smith, who sued over Colorado's anti-discrimination law. The justices voted 6-3 that the First Amendment gives Smith the right to refuse to endorse messages she disagrees with, which includes designing a website for a gay couple.

Magarian said the Supreme Court’s decision could have major implications for other forms of discrimination.

“Under the logic of this decision, if you are a provider of goods or services that involve speech in some way, you can, as I read the opinion, refuse to provide those expressive services to any person or group, based on any kind of animus you might have,” he said. “Racial, misogynistic, homophobic — whatever it might be because that would be a violation of your free speech rights.”

The Supreme Court case was argued by the Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian legal advocacy group. The legal team included attorney Erin Hawley, the wife of Republican U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley. Sen. Hawley tweeted after the decision that he was proud of his wife for litigating the case.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is produced by Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski, Elaine Cha and Alex Heuer. Ulaa Kuziez is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr. Send questions and comments about this story to talk@stlpr.org

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Danny Wicentowski is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air."