Kansas City, MO July 2, 2010
Just days before the United States enjoys its annual celebration of freedom, a Platte County Circuit Court judge has ruled that the government may prohibit Missourians from sharing information that, by the government’s own admission, is truthful and doesn’t hurt anybody.
Tiffany Lewis runs Kansas City Premier Apartments(KCPA), a business that specializes in helping people find rental properties in the Kansas City area. KCPA’s website helps people looking for a place to rent find the properties that best fit their interests. The company also provides rental advisors who can answer more detailed questions about the properties that advertise on the website. If a renter finds a property through KCPA, the company gets a portion of the first month’s rent. Thus, properties get a low-risk way to advertise themselves and the public enjoys zero-cost access to information that can tremendously reduce the stress and difficulty of finding a new place to live.
But not everyone is satisfied with this seeming win-win situation. In a multi-year battle, the Missouri Real Estate Commission (MREC) claimed that KCPA was practicing real estate brokerage without a license, which is a criminal offense that carries a potential six-month jail term. The MREC told Ms. Lewis that she must quit breaking the law or the commission would press charges against her. Unfortunately, Ms. Lewis wasn’t sure what she was doing wrong. Before starting KCPA she had discussed the matter with both the Kansas Real Estate Commission and the MREC; the Kansas agency said no license was necessary while the MREC said it was a “gray area”. More importantly, she believed that the freedom of speech guaranteed in the U.S. and Missouri Constitutions would not allow the government to block her company from sharing truthful information with those interested in receiving it.
“The First Amendment protects pornography, flag burning, and Ku Klux Klan marches; why in the world shouldn’t our rental advisors be permitted to give truthful answers to questions about apartments?” asked Ryan Gran, a part-owner of KCPA.
Dating back to 2007, the MREC initially threatened Ms. Lewis and KCPA with Cease & Desist letters. In order to protect their freedoms and livelihood, KCPA filed a declaratory judgement lawsuit against the MREC. Nearly 2 years later, the MREC counter-sued with their own injunction lawsuit. After years of discovery the case was finally heard on June 23-24, 2010; at which time the MREC’s attorney admitted that the information provided by KCPA was truthful and isn’t hurting anyone – but only people approved by the government are allowed to accept compensation for sharing that kind of information. While the judgment issued on June 30th, 2010 in favor of the government did not explain its reasoning, it appears that the court agreed.
Lewis expressed shock and disappointment at news of the court’s decision: “The government argued that the people of Missouri need to be protected from truthful, harmless information about rental properties. I actually thought it was kind of silly until the court ordered me to shut down my business.”
Despite this ruling, KCPA is determined to keep fighting to ensure that Missourians need not get the government’s permission before they talk about certain subjects. The company intends to appeal this decision directly to the Missouri Supreme Court.
“Free expression is one of the most cherished liberties afforded in our constitutional system. Just six months ago the U.S. Supreme Court reaffirmed the fundamental importance of free speech, stating that the government cannot pick and choose who gets to share identical information,” said Dave Roland, an attorney representing KCPA. “Higher courts must reverse this decision. If free speech means anything it means that the government can’t criminalize truthful information that poses no risk to anyone’s health or safety.”
Both the declaratory judgement lawsuit and the injunction lawsuit were consolidated as case number 07AE-CV01240, Kansas City Premier Apartments v MO State etal.