Open government is a cornerstone of the American system. Without it, “government by the people” becomes a hollow ring. Coronavirus challenges our system of government on all fronts — including the Constitution. Today, Americans for Prosperity and the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri write together, representing the political spectrum that stands firmly behind the First Amendment and the right of the people to petition their government.
When the Missouri Legislature returns next week, it will do so while actively discouraging Missourians from coming to the Capitol. It likely will place restrictions on where the press can be and how the people are to submit testimony. It will likely move to limit the interactions of legislators on the floor and in their offices. It is understandable why some restrictions may be necessary to protect public health. We strongly encourage all government officials to avoid the overreach of their powers and keep those restrictions narrow, evidence-based, and time-limited. You must govern with the full awareness that both our physical health and our health as a government, grounded in the Constitution, are at stake.
Working in the shadows, even in a time of crisis, sets the precedent that closed government is acceptable. It is not.
Closed government stifles speech, including the speech of the elected representatives sent to Jefferson City to serve and, most importantly, including the speech of Missouri constituents whose lives and livelihoods depend on the laws the legislature creates.
There is another way forward. If the government cannot come back in a way that protects public health while allowing meaningful public input and discussion, it shouldn’t come back to governing as usual with an open agenda.
After Sept. 11, the U.S. saw considerable challenges to our values of privacy and openness. We still struggle today to make sure that abuses done in the name of national security do not go unchallenged. After Pearl Harbor, our country shamefully detained Japanese individuals, eviscerating their Constitutional rights. We continue to struggle under the legacy of Korematsu. As our nation responds to crisis, we must be mindful of the heritage we create.
Should the legislature return, the eyes of Missourians who cherish their First Amendment rights will be on Jefferson City. We will push, even from a distance, to keep our government accountable. We urge the legislature to consider their impact on Constitutional freedoms when they enter those chambers. We strongly encourage them to narrowly tailor their purpose to pass the budget, which they face a constitutional deadline to finalize, and narrow legislation needed to fight the coronavirus pandemic.
We cannot return to governing as usual if we cannot return to our normal lifestyles. Right now, we must uphold the fundamentals. We must let the welfare of the people be supreme and ensure that we do all in our power to keep the freedom of speech unabridged.
Sara Baker is the policy director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri. Jeremy Cady is the state director of Americans for Prosperity – Missouri.