Mowing Down the Grassroots

June 1, 2010

As federal, state and local governments continue their relentless assault on free speech in the guise of campaign finance “reforms,” the Institute for Justice is fighting back to protect our rights. Our most recent lawsuit, in the state of Washington, takes on a law that strikes at the heart of ordinary Americans’ right to free speech.

At town hall meetings, rallies, talk radio, “meet ups” and protests, Americans are constantly urging one another to get involved and influence public policy. Our nation’s history is replete with people trying to convince one another—sometimes anonymously—to effect political change.

Unfortunately, many believe that this kind of democracy in action must be regulated and monitored by the state. Thirty-six states regulate what campaign finance reformers call “grassroots lobbying,” which, in reality, is not lobbying at all because it does not involve people speaking directly with government officials. Rather, “grassroots lobbying” describes ordinary citizens speaking to each other about political change.

In Washington state, if a grassroots group spends more than $500 in one month, or $1,000 in three months, “presenting a program addressed to the public, a substantial portion of which is intended, designed, or calculated primarily to influence” state policy, it has to register with the government and report the names, addresses and occupations of the persons leading the effort. It also has to report the name and address of anyone organizing or assisting the effort and the name and address of anyone contributing $25 or more. Finally, it has to report the totals of all expenditures made by the group and the purpose of their efforts—that is, they have to tell the government precisely what they do not like about the current law.

Activists have to report this information every month. Getting it wrong can be financially ruinous: The government can prosecute and fine an activist up to $10,000 for each violation of the law, and courts can award attorney’s fees to the government.

The government does not merely collect this information—it makes it available to anyone with access to a computer. In other words, a person’s name, address, occupation and political beliefs are posted on a government-maintained database because that person exercised her First Amendment rights.

Given how complex and intrusive this law is, many small grassroots groups decide that being involved is not worth the effort. The cost of compliance is so high, and the risk of error so great, that they abandon the field to the professionals who can afford to hire the lawyers, accountants and bookkeepers necessary to legally exercise their First Amendment rights in the Evergreen State.

But two grassroots organizations have joined with the Institute for Justice to fight back. Many Cultures, One Message is a small, volunteer organization from Southeast Seattle that wants to protect the character of Washington’s working-class neighborhoods, including their own, by fighting eminent domain abuse. IJ’s other client, Conservative Enthusiasts, is a nonprofit advocacy group urging smaller government, lower taxes and less regulation.

These two organizations have different purposes, but they agree that the government has no business in collecting, monitoring and disseminating information about the political activities of private citizens. That is why, with the help of the Institute for Justice, they filed suit in federal court seeking to have Washington’s grassroots lobbying law declared unconstitutional.

Fighting eminent domain abuse and big government is difficult enough as it is. The government should not be discouraging ordinary citizens from participating in public debate. If the First Amendment protects anything, it protects the right of all Americans to speak to one another about the issues that affect their lives without first having to register with the government.

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