Victory for Political Speech in Alabama

Following federal lawsuit, Alabama Ethics Commission drops burdensome, in-state training for groups that petition government

Arlington, Va.—In a victory for free speech, the Alabama Ethics Commission agreed to eliminate its onerous in-person training requirement for private citizens who want to speak with state lawmakers. This comes in response to an August 2016 federal lawsuit filed by Maggie Ellinger-Locke and her employer, the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), represented by the Institute for Justice (IJ) and local counsel David Schoen.

Previously, any speaker who wanted to exercise their First Amendment rights to petition Alabama lawmakers and who fell within Alabama’s expansive definition of “lobbyist” would be required to physically attend an ethics class offered only four times a year—and only in Montgomery, Alabama. This presented a major hurdle for Maggie Ellinger-Locke, who works for MPP, a national nonprofit that seeks to reform state and federal marijuana policy. Maggie planned to spend only a few hours a year talking to Alabama lawmakers, and because she works out of Washington, D.C., she planned to contact them by phone. But under Alabama’s lobbying laws, those phone calls would have required Maggie to register as a full-blown lobbyist and travel nearly 800 miles, to Montgomery, to attend Alabama’s hour-long ethics class.

The Ethics Commission has now dropped that burdensome rule, agreeing that lobbyists can satisfy the training requirement online. Instead of physically traveling to Montgomery, they can simply live-stream the class. In the event of a conflict, lobbyists can schedule a personal online training with the Ethics Commission.

“Lobbying government officials about matters of public policy rests at the very core of the First Amendment’s protection for the right to petition the government,” said Paul Sherman, a senior attorney with IJ, which represents Maggie and MPP. “We are glad that the Ethics Commission agreed to a common-sense fix that honors the right of citizens from across the country to talk to lawmakers free from unreasonable regulation.”

While other states have ethics-training requirements for lobbyists, Alabama was unique in requiring people to physically travel to the state capital to comply with the law.  As the Commission noted last year, the in-person training requirement “places a burden” on people like Maggie. And Maggie wasn’t alone. Public records indicated that at the time Maggie filed her lawsuit, more than 15 percent of Alabama’s registered lobbyists lived outside Alabama and that all registered lobbyists lived, on average, more than 130 miles from Montgomery.

“I’m thrilled that the Ethics Commission has brought its law into the twenty-first century,” said Maggie.  “It’s critical that states make it easier—not harder—for Americans to communicate with their elected officials.”

The Ethics Commission has agreed to make its live-streaming training option available by May 2017.

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