Andrew Bailey’s commitment to free speech seems to depend on the speaker’s politics | Opinion

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Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey often likes to portray himself as a staunch defender of free speech — at least for his conservative friends. His commitment to open expression is very much in question when it comes to progressive activists, however.

Two examples from the past week highlight Bailey’s inconsistency.

First, Bailey last week joined a group of conservative state attorneys general who asked an appellate court to strike down a gag order on Donald Trump in his Washington, D.C., election interference case. (Kansas’ Kris Kobach was also part of the group.) The order was designed to keep Trump — one of the most famous men in the world — from using his campaign rallies or social media accounts to attack witnesses and other “individuals involved in the judicial process.”

There’s a good reason for the concern. Americans have seen the former president use his public platforms to unleash violence: We all remember the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection. His more unhinged followers remain quite dangerous — a Texas woman was charged in August making racist death threats against the judge in the D.C. case.

Attorneys general and other prosecutors typically don’t like it when criminal defendants lash out publicly at witnesses and judges, or cause their friends to do the same. But Donald Trump is no ordinary defendant. The gag order is “infringing on President Trump’s free speech rights,” the AGs said in their filing.

Missouri is a champion for free speech,” Bailey said in a press release. “President Trump, like so many Americans, has been silenced on social media platforms for daring to be a political opponent of Joe Biden, and now they’re attempting to silence his right to speak at all.”

That might seem noble, if not for what happened next.

Elon Musk, the multibillionaire owner of the social media platform X (formerly known as Twitter) over the weekend threatened to file a “thermonuclear” lawsuit against the progressive outfit Media Matters after it published a story on its findings that advertisements on X were being run next to user posts with pro-Nazi and other racist messaging.

Big companies that advertise on the platform — including Apple, Comcast and Disney — quickly halted their campaigns. (Musk’s X Corp. filed the federal suit in Texas Monday evening.)

But Musk’s allies charged that Media Matters had committed “fraud” by creating X accounts for the purpose of eliciting such ugly results. “Fraud is both a civil and criminal violation,” Stephen Miller, the notorious anti-immigrant adviser to Trump, wrote online, and added suggestively: “There are 2 dozen+ conservative state Attorneys General.”

Bailey took the bait. “My team is looking into this matter,” he wrote online Sunday afternoon.

The implication, of course, is that Bailey is willing to use the investigative powers of his office against a progressive group for the offense of criticizing Musk — who just happens to be a hero these days among many of the same right-wing Americans who love Trump so much.

That’s not really the kind of thing a “free speech champion” does, is it?

These inconsistencies are nothing new, of course. The Star in July noted that Bailey has a clear pattern of vigorously arguing for the free speech of conservative groups and individuals while at the same time working to curb expression on topics he dislikes — most notably on LGBT issues. “He’s a defender of free speech that he likes,” said Chuck Hatfield, who worked in the attorney general’s office under Democrat Jay Nixon, “but he’s certainly willing to try to shut down speech that he doesn’t like.”

Bailey has continued to regularly posture as a First Amendment champion since then, even as his actions have indicated otherwise. It is difficult to know whether he is trolling his critics, or simply being disingenuous.

But Missourians shouldn’t be fooled. Bailey’s stance boils down to “unfettered expression for me, but not for thee.” Which means he really isn’t a free speech champion at all.

Joel Mathis is a regular Star Opinion correspondent. He lives in Lawrence with his wife and son. Formerly a writer and editor at Kansas newspapers, he served nine years as a syndicated columnist.