Missouri Supreme Court Weighs Publicly Funded Advocacy Ban

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — Missouri Supreme Court judges on Tuesday heard arguments over whether a ban on publicly funded advocacy is constitutional.

Missouri law prohibits any public funds from being spent to advocate for or against ballot measures, such as spending such money to print flyers in favor of a bonding proposal.

Several Missouri cities sued to try to overturn the law two years ago, arguing that it is too vague and limits freedom of speech.

Judge Mary Russell asked Paul Martin, a lawyer for the cities, whether a mayor could still advocate for a ballot issue with an email blast. Martin said it's not clear whether that would be allowed under the law or if public officials are banned from doing that on work-issued computers.

Martin also criticized the law for targeting public officials who speak out on issues instead of penalizing the expenditure of public funding.

Lawmakers amended the law this year to specify that violations can be prosecuted as election offenses punishable by up to a year in jail and a $2,500 fine.

Martin said expanding what's called the government speech doctrine to allow a government official to be prosecuted under the law would be a “very, very dangerous thing to do.”

The Missouri Attorney General’s Office is defending the law. Deputy Solicitor General Michael Talent told the state Supreme Court judges that government speech isn’t protected by the First Amendment, so the law is valid.

“Public officials taking public stances on public issues using public funds, that is quintessential government speech,” Talent said.

The judges didn't indicate when they might rule.