In City of Maryland Heights v. State, 638 S.W.3d 895 (Mo. 2022), officials of political subdivisions in St. Louis County alleged that Section 115.646 RSMo., prohibiting use of public funds in support or opposition to ballot measures and candidates (the “Advocacy Prohibition”), violated the First and Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution. In the circuit court, plaintiffs prevailed as the trial court held that the Advocacy Prohibition violated the plaintiffs’ right to free speech as it regulated speech based on content and was not narrowly tailored to serve a compelling state interest. The trial court also held that the Advocacy Prohibition was void for vagueness as certain terms within the statute were ambiguous.
However, the Missouri Supreme Court reversed the ruling, holding that the Advocacy Prohibition was not a regulation of the speech of public officials but rather a regulation on the use of public funds. The Missouri Supreme Court held the law simply did not implicate the First Amendment rights of the plaintiffs because the officials have no indefeasible right to use public funds to subsidize their speech. The Court also found that the statute is not void for vagueness, as the terms in question—specifically “ballot measure,” “public funds,” when those public funds are spent “directly” by an official, and “advocate, support, or oppose” when used in the statute—are commonly understood by a person of ordinary intelligence. “While there may be uncertainty in cases near the margin, complete specificity is not required,” the Court said.
The result of this case is that the Advocacy Prohibition is still in effect and enforceable against municipal officials. Therefore, officials should continue to be vigilant regarding the expenditure of public funds to “advocate, support, or oppose” any ballot measures or candidates. If you have any questions regarding the applicability of Section 115.646 RSMo., or ballot questions generally, please consult your City Attorney or reach out to Joe Bond at email@example.com.