Government May Criminalize Truthful, Harmless Speech
(By Freedom Center of Missouri)
On July 19 the Missouri Supreme Court issued its opinion in Kansas City Premier Apartments v. Missouri Real Estate Commission, in which it upheld a state law that criminalizes the communication of truthful, harmless information. Although at trial the government’s own expert witness had testified that KCPA’s speech was both truthful and unlikely to cause any harm to the public, five of the high court’s seven judges ruled that Missouri citizens may not tell others about real estate unless the government has given them special permission to do so.
“The U.S. Supreme Court has held that the First Amendment protects nude dancing, burning the American flag, and images of animals being crushed to death,” said Dave Roland, director of litigation for the Freedom Center of Missouri, the public interest law firm challenging the speech restrictions. “But today the Missouri Supreme Court has ruled that you can be thrown in jail for helping a friend find an apartment.”
The court’s ruling runs contrary to the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent emphasis on protecting free expression. As Judge Michael A. Wolff pointed out in his dissenting opinion, less than one month ago the US. Supreme Court struck down a Vermont law that prohibited the sale of certain commercial information, powerfully reaffirming the constitutional principles that should have applied to the speech restrictions at issue in this case.
Wolff, whose opinion was joined by Chief Justice Teitelman, also highlighted the government’s failure to identify any likely harm at might justify the prohibition of KCPA’s speech: “If the state wants an injunction limited only to the use of false or deceptive information, the state may be able to make the required showing. But the broad prohibition of this injunction violates the First Amendment.”
The Freedom Center’s executive director Jenifer Zeigler Roland said, “The U.S. Supreme Court has made clear that where the government seeks to restrict speech, it must show evidence as why that restriction is necessary. In this case the government offered no evidence to justify its criminalization of truthful speech..”
The Freedom Center of Missouri plans to appeal the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.