Seattle, Wash.—Washingtonians from both sides of the political spectrum filed a lawsuit today to stop their state from monitoring, collecting and publicly disseminating information about the political activities of private citizens who do nothing more than urge their fellow citizens to take political action. They seek to vindicate the belief that if the First Amendment protects anything, it protects the right of all Americans to speak to one another about the issues affecting their lives without having to first register with the government.
There are few things more distinctly American than grassroots political activism. From town hall meetings and statehouse rallies to talk radio, blogs and “meet ups,” Americans are constantly finding new and innovative ways to participate in politics. Through such activities, people can alert elected officials to constituents’ preferences, educate fellow citizens about how to make their voices heard, and even persuade the public to adopt new views. In fact, it’s hard to imagine our system of government working without an active and engaged populace of grassroots activists.
But little-known laws existing in a majority of states threaten to strangle this kind of political participation with red tape, ensuring that the public square is occupied by only those established voices that have enough resources to overcome the immense burdens imposed by so-called “grassroots lobbying” laws. These laws require groups to register with the state and file frequent and detailed reports about their contributions, expenditures and activities.
Under Washington’s “grassroots lobbying” law, if you urge your fellow citizens to contact government officials and spend more than the state’s arbitrarily low ceiling (only $500 in one month or $1,000 in three months), the government forces you to register with it and report your name, address, business and occupation, as well as the names and addresses of anyone with whom you are working to spread your message. The state also demands to know the names and addresses of each person who contributes more than $25 to your efforts.
Simply put: Even if you never talk to an elected official but spend as little as $500 merely to communicate with your neighbors and friends about state policies, you must register with, and provide information to, the government, which then proceeds to disseminate the information on the Internet. Failure to register can lead to an investigation, significant penalties (including treble damages, the costs of the investigation and the government’s attorney’s fees), and a revocation of the ability to engage in any political activity that might qualify as “grassroots lobbying.”
“Many grassroots organizations will simply forego speaking because the burdens of disclosure are so high and the costs of incorrectly reporting so steep,” said Institute for Justice Washington Chapter Executive Director Bill Maurer, which filed suit on behalf of the small, Washington-based, citizen activist organizations challenging the law. “This is unacceptable under the First Amendment, which unreservedly protects speech about politics. Our goal in this case is to begin rolling back regulations on grassroots activism in the states and ensure that efforts to pass such regulations at the federal level are stopped once and for all.”
The sweeping lobbying laws of 36 states threaten to strangle grassroots movements with red tape and regulation, according to University of Missouri economist and campaign-finance scholar Jeffrey Milyo in a new report, “Mowing Down the Grassroots: How Grassroots Lobbying Disclosure Suppresses Political Participation,” published by the Institute for Justice. (The report is available at: www.ij.org/MowingDownTheGrassroots.)
Dr. Milyo found that these laws are often incapable of being understood by ordinary people. The first paragraph of Massachusetts’ new lobbying law, for example, scored 0.9 on a 100-point scale in a readability test. Going by such tests, it would take 34 years of formal education to understand that paragraph; not even a doctorate from MIT or Harvard would be enough. Dr. Milyo pointed to previous research that shows that ordinary citizens have a difficult time with the kind of red tape these laws require—and the information disclosed provides little public benefit. Yet citizens face fines and in some places jail time for engaging in political activities that violate these laws. In New York, the maximum criminal penalty is $5,000 and four years in jail, equivalent to arson or riot; and in Alabama, it is $30,000 and 20 years, an equivalent punishment for kidnapping.
Pat Murakami leads a group called “Many Cultures, One Message,” which is dedicated to preserving the diverse and lively neighborhoods of Seattle and opposes the use of eminent domain for redevelopment. She is concerned that the layers of red tape and expenses associated with registering as a grassroots lobbying organization could swallow her group. “The only thing grassroots lobbying laws accomplish is to limit the political process to lobbyists and insiders,” says Murakami. “For a volunteer organization like us, fighting to preserve our neighborhood is difficult and expensive enough as it is. My organization cannot afford the time and lawyers necessary to correctly comply with Washington’s incomprehensible and complex law.”
Another grassroots activist, Alfred Petermann, who runs the small-government group Conservative Enthusiasts, is worried that the law’s disclosure requirements will scare away donors and vendors who don’t want to be publicly associated with the group’s views, which often engender vehement opposition among some in government, big business and large labor unions. “Conservative Enthusiasts will have a hard time raising funds and getting its message out to the public if its potential supporters will have their names and addresses posted on the Internet and available to co-workers, employers, and others to see,” says Petermann. As a result, he is considering limiting his grassroots issue campaign expenses to under $500 so that Conservative Enthusiasts will not have to register. This demonstrates yet another example of how citizens’ basic rights to anonymous political speech and association, as well as the right to petition the government, are severely chilled by Washington’s law.
“What Washington state government calls ‘grassroots lobbying’ has been called ‘participating in our democracy’ for as long as we’ve had a country . . . even longer,” said IJ Staff Attorney Jason Adkins. “This is what James Madison, John Jay and Alexander Hamilton were doing when they wrote the Federalist Papers—anonymous so-called grassroots lobbying that would be illegal under current Washington law.”
Adkins continued, “As private citizens continue to advocate for change against the interests of the political establishment of both parties, there is a growing push to extend grassroots lobbying laws to other states and to the federal level. This would do little but make government less accountable and leave politics solely to professionals.” A federal grassroots lobbying law has already been proposed in Congress, but was eventually tabled. Reformers remain eager to pass the law.
But Maurer noted that IJ stands ready to counter this assault on First Amendment freedoms: “If government officials need laws to protect them from communications from the people they are supposed to represent, then our government has ceased to be representative at all,” he said. “The government has no business monitoring the political activities of the very people it purports to serve.”