Removal of I-44 road sign could be in conflict with First Amendment

Published: May. 5, 2023 at 10:15 PM CDT
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KIRKWOOD, Mo. (KMOV) - The decision to remove a road sign honoring a convicted cop killer could violate the First Amendment, according to a freedom of speech expert.

The Missouri Department of Transportation has not said why and under what circumstances a road sign honoring Kevin Johnson was removed from I-44 westbound at Lindbergh, except to say they are “investigating” the application for its ‘Adopt a Highway’ program. Johnson admitted to shooting and killing Kirkwood Officer William McEntee in 2005 and was executed last November.

The sign was removed last Saturday after complaints on social media that Johnson was not worthy of being honored because of his criminal behavior.

Dave Roland is a freedom of speech lawyer at the nonpartisan Freedom Center of Missouri. He says the signs are generally protected free speech, except if the sign is likely to incite violence.

“The government doesn’t get to pick and choose who it is that gets celebrated,” Roland said. “Everyone is in favor of free speech until somebody says something that someone else finds offensive. And that’s why constitutional protections are important.”

MoDOT’s administrative rules say that recent criminals and those incarcerated “are not eligible.” But Roland says the rule may only apply to the group applying for the application, not the person they want to honor.

Friends and family applied for the sign after Johnson’s execution, according to Michelle Smith with Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. Smith says those in Johnson’s family are upset the sign was removed. MADP is the organization that advocated for clemency for Smith before his execution.

“We understand, and we believe that a person’s worst mistake does not define their entirety,” Smith said. “There are victims on both sides of this. And that’s what you know, I don’t think it’s really being understood.”

Smith agrees that McEntee’s killing was a “horrible” crime, but she argues there are many people who loved Johnson, including his daughter. She says MADP’s lawyers are looking at the sign’s removal.

An attempt to reach a MoDOT spokesperson Friday afternoon went unanswered.