Kansas City Star. September 28, 2023.
Editorial: Do Eric Schmitt and Andrew Bailey support Trump’s threat to shut down free speech?
Here is how you can tell true First Amendment defenders from the charlatans: They stand up for the right to free expression even when they disagree with the speech in question.
The fakers? They stand up for the speech of their friends, and only their friends.
Two Missouri Republicans — U.S. Sen. Eric Schmitt and Attorney General Andrew Bailey — very much like to cast themselves as free speech warriors. Both men had a hand in Missouri’s ongoing lawsuit against the Biden administration for the pressure it put on social media companies to suppress COVID-19 disinformation during the darker days of the pandemic, and both men frequently mention it in their own online postings.
Schmitt, in fact, on Sunday posted the results of a recent poll from Real Clear Politics, a right-leaning outfit, that suggests Democratic voters are somewhat weaker on free speech protections than their Republican counterparts.
Just 53% of Democrats said speech should be legal under any circumstances according to the poll, while 74% of Republicans supported that statement. And only 31% of Democrats agreed that “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Fifty-one percent of Republican voters agreed with that idea.
“Tell me more about Threats To Democracy️,” the senator sneered.
On Monday, meanwhile, Bailey went online to decry the Biden administration’s hiring of ex-intelligence officials who, he said, tried to “censor” information about Hunter Biden’s laptop on the eve of the 2020 presidential election.
“We’re not going to let Joe Biden destroy free speech in America,” Bailey wrote.
We don’t necessarily agree with Schmitt and Bailey on some of the particulars of the cases they mention. But in a general sense they’re right: The First Amendment, and the free speech rights it guarantees, is a critical foundation of our democracy.
Too bad Donald Trump — the ostensible leader of their party, a man to whom both Schmitt and Bailey have demonstrated unswerving loyalty — doesn’t agree.
Truth Social vow to investigate media for ‘treason’
On Sunday evening, the former president went on his Truth Social network and threatened — should he win the White House once again — to bring down the full force of government power on NBC News and its owner, Comcast, for the crime of publishing mean stories about him.
“They are almost all dishonest and corrupt, but Comcast, with its one-side and vicious coverage by NBC NEWS, and in particular MSNBC, often and correctly referred to as MSDNC (Democrat National Committee!), should be investigated for its ‘Country Threatening Treason,’” Trump wrote.
Under a second Trump presidency, he wrote, the “LameStream media” would be “thoroughly scrutinized” for their supposedly unfair reporting on him.
“Why should NBC, or any other of the corrupt & dishonest media companies, be entitled to use the very valuable Airwaves of the USA, FREE?,” Trump wrote. “They are a true threat to Democracy and are, in fact, THE ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE! The Fake News Media should pay a big price for what they have done to our once great Country!”
Trump’s statement was almost directly the opposite of “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” One could scarcely imagine a more direct threat on the news media’s First Amendment rights.
In such circumstances, you might expect true defenders of free speech to leap to NBC’s defense — to chastise the former president gently, perhaps, and urge him to find a more Constitution-friendly way to work out his anger toward his interlocutors.
Instead, Schmitt and Bailey remained publicly silent. No social media posts, no cable news appearances, no press releases.
That’s not a surprise. Schmitt (eventually) received Trump’s endorsement during his Senate run last year. Bailey has already endorsed Trump’s latest run for the White House. Both men have supported Trump and taken his support knowing full well the former president’s contempt for constitutional niceties and civil liberties. We’ve asked their offices for comment, but had received no reply as of press time.
Missouri’s leading Republicans have every right not to speak out on matters of public importance, of course. That’s covered by the First Amendment too. The rest of us are free to judge their silence — and what it says about the consistency of their free speech commitments.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch. September 28, 2023.
Editorial: Ashcroft is determined to thwart a fair abortion vote any way he can
Next to the phrase “bad faith” in the dictionary should be the official portrait of Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft. Having been slapped down in court this week for his deliberately improper handling of a pending abortion-rights referendum, he now vows to appeal, even though he never had a case.
The obvious goal is and always has been to tie up the question in court long enough to potentially cause activists to miss deadlines for gathering signatures to get abortion rights on the Missouri ballot next year. Ashcroft apparently cares nothing about the fact that he is transparently misusing his official powers for his own political gain.
He clearly thinks voters in next year’s gubernatorial race won’t hold him accountable for this crass and cynical abuse of authority. They should.
At issue is Missouri’s new abortion ban, enacted minutes after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last year. It bans abortion from the moment of conception in all cases, even rape and incest, with the sole exception of medical emergencies. Doctors who violate the ban can face up to 15 years in prison.
No state in America has a more draconian abortion law. And Ashcroft and his fellow right-wing Republicans have apparently come to understand that even in conservative Missouri, it may not survive a statewide referendum.
After all, of the seven states that have considered abortion-related issues on a statewide ballot since Roe fell, every single one — even the red states of Kansas and Kentucky — has come down strongly on the side of protecting reasonable abortion rights.
So Ashcroft, determined not to let Missouri voters have a clear up-or-down vote on the issue if he can help it, has been using his state-funded office to sabotage the current effort to get an abortion-rights referendum on the ballot.
As secretary of state, Ashcroft is responsible for crafting ballot language to describe the proposed referendum. Under state law, that language is required to be “neither intentionally argumentative nor likely to create prejudice either for or against the proposed measure.”
Abortion-rights activists are proposing several different versions of the referendum, which contain various levels of detail as to when abortion might or might not be regulated by the state. But none is accurately described by the ballot language Ashcroft is trying to foist on the voters.
His proposed language — which, again, is required by law to be free of biased wording — would tell voters that the referendum allows for “dangerous, unregulated and unrestricted abortions” from “conception to live birth.”
That’s not unbiased ballot language, it’s a right-wing campaign screed designed to appeal to the Republican base that Ashcroft is wooing in next year’s increasingly competitive GOP primary for governor.
Cole County Circuit Judge Jon Beetem saw right through it. In a ruling Monday, Beetem correctly found that Ashcroft’s language was “argumentative” and does not “fairly describe the purposes or probable effect” of the proposed ballot measures. Which is putting it mildly.
Beetem rewrote the language to offer voters a sober description of the proposals, including their protections for contraception and reproductive health care generally, which Ashcroft’s language ignored.
Each of six ballot summaries that Beetem re-wrote for the differently worded measures begins by telling voters the proposals would “establish a right to make decisions about reproductive health care, including abortion and contraceptives, with any government interference of that right presumed invalid.”
That accurately describes the intent of the proposals, free of rhetorical hysteria. So Ashcroft is doubling down on the hysteria.
His vowed appeal of Beetem’s ruling will almost certainly end up at the same place, but it will further stall the referendum effort. Missouri taxpayers are funding this gross abuse of state powers and resources to thwart a fair vote on the issue. Voters shouldn’t forget that the next time Ashcroft’s name is on the ballot.
Jefferson City News Tribune. October 1, 2023.
Editorial: Sunshine Law benefits us all
Even after 50 years on the books, Missouri’s Sunshine Law may be one of the most misunderstood and misapplied statutes in the Show-Me State.
Passed in 1973 in the wake of the Watergate scandal, Missouri’s Sunshine Law made Missouri one of the earliest advocates of open records and meetings. The law specifically states meetings, records, votes, actions and deliberations of public governmental bodies are to be open to the public.
The underlying premise is that Missourians are best served when the public’s business is conducted in the view of the public.
Sadly, that’s not always the case.
Attorney General Andrew Bailey filed a lawsuit this week against a suburban St. Louis school board that allegedly strayed significantly beyond the scope of the law.
The lawsuit stems from a June 14 closed meeting of the Wentzville Board of Education in which board members were receiving legal advice and details on a student’s request to use a different bathroom.
The discussion was allowed to be held in closed session under an exception under Missouri’s Sunshine Law for discussion of legal matters.
But the board strayed from the original purpose of the closed meeting, Bailey’s lawsuit alleges, because it became a discussion about transgender students’ bathroom access.
In an affidavit in the lawsuit, two board members allege the board considered whether there should be exceptions for notifying parents when students request bathroom accommodations, such as in cases of parental abuse.
Accepting legal advice on this particular case would be allowable under Missouri’s Sunshine Law, but venturing out into a discussion about a policy on bathroom access clearly is not allowed and should have been discussed in an open session.
“Parents have the right to know who is in the bathroom with their children,” Bailey said in a statement announcing the lawsuit. “Members of the Wentzville School Board knowingly and purposefully denied parents that right when they shrouded the transgender student bathroom usage policy in secrecy, directly violating the Open Meetings Law.”
According to the affidavit, other board members also spoke against having the discussion about restroom access in closed session, but the debate continued.
Just as troubling as the alleged closed-door policy debate is a recently proposed ethics policy of the board. Under that policy, members who spoke out against the closed-door discussions could face retaliation.
The policy would punish board members who make comments that could be interpreted as “undermining” the administration and making “disparaging remarks” about other members.
In this instance, the policy would undermine the clear intent and application of the Sunshine Law by potentially punishing board members who would break ranks with the school board.
The Sunshine Law is clear in its intent and application. The public’s business is to be conducted in the presence of the public as much as possible.
The law does provide 25 exceptions, including the discussion of legal matters, that would permit a closed session. But the law is abundantly clear: Missouri’s Sunshine Law is to be “liberally construed and their exceptions strictly construed to promote this public policy (of open meetings and records).”
Whether due to ignorance or indifference, too many governmental agencies fail to meet the standard laid out by the Sunshine Law. And because of it, Missourians suffer the consequences.
In an effort to address any ignorance of the law, the Missouri Sunshine Coalition has been working with the attorney general’s Sunshine Law compliance director to hold trainings around the state to educate officials and the public about the law.
In an effort to address the indifference, we are heartened by the attorney general’s lawsuit to openly confront violations of the law.
Both of these approaches benefit us all.
Dennis Ellsworth, executive director of the Missouri Sunshine Coalition and a former newspaper editor, explains why the law is vital for our future.
“The important understanding is the Sunshine Law works for everyone -- young or old, those of all races and incomes, whether your allegiances are with Republicans, Democrats or another political movement,” he said. “We all have a stake in seeing to it that the Sunshine Law is preserved, strengthened as necessary, and broadly embraced by the public.”