Missouri agency screwed up when it erased ‘Trump 2020’ from 13-year-old boy’s photo

For sheer speed and efficiency, impeachment in Washington couldn’t keep up with expungement in Missouri.

Long before Congress gets to decide the fate of President Donald Trump, someone at the Missouri Department of Transportation decided the president needed expunging now in the Show-Me State: A young raffle winner chosen to push the detonator and demolish a 90-year-old Mississippi River bridge on the border north of St. Louis Friday had his pro-Trump shirt cropped out and pro-Trump hat blacked out for an official state photo memorializing the event.

MoDOT later apologized for altering the photo of 13-year-old Mitchell Lemons of Nebo, Illinois, to, in effect, silence him and his “Trump 2020” statement.

To the department’s credit, it didn’t refer to the act as a “mistake,” which it most certainly was not. It was quite purposeful, if immensely misguided.

“We apologize for the error in judgment in editing this photo,” MoDOT correctly said when it posted the original, unedited photo.

Even those who oppose the president should be alarmed by this needless transgression — if for no other reason than it fuels conservatives’ allegations that there are government bureaucrats working in the shadows to undermine the Trump agenda.

“This is just one more piece of evidence that anti-Trump bureaucrats exist at all levels of government,” Steve Snitz, chairman of the Northeast Johnson County Conservatives told The Star. “What disturbs me about it is, they feel entitled to take action on their beliefs and feelings.”

Certainly state agencies shouldn’t be in the business of promoting candidates, but neither can they be policing and scrubbing private citizens’ speech. As the “First Amendment Encyclopedia” of Middle Tennessee State University notes, “any attempt to regulate expression based on its content will require a showing of a compelling governmental interest, particularly where the speech occurs in a public forum or on public property traditionally available for expressive and associative activities.”

The government, for example, has a compelling interest in maintaining voting places that are free of politicking. Otherwise, the solemn duty of casting ballots would be performed in the midst of political three-ring circuses and perhaps even the intimidation of implied pressure.

The government has no such compelling interest in muzzling a 13-year-old boy’s harmless expression of political persuasion.

Such is the case regardless of which side of the aisle you sit on. What if this had occurred several years ago, and MoDOT had suppressed a citizen’s support for Barack Obama? The offense would have been precisely the same.

The law is exceedingly clear on this point. The Missouri Department of Transportation has inadvertently, and thankfully temporarily, underlined it.

Related stories from Kansas City Star