State Laws Threaten to Mow Down Grassroots Activists

June 7, 2010

By Lisa Knepper

As documented in a new IJ Strategic Research report—Mowing Down the Grassroots: How Grassroots Lobbying Disclosure Suppresses Political Participation—36 states threaten grassroots political movements with red tape and regulation. Washington—one of those 36—is the latest focal point in the Institute for Justice’s effort to strike down these laws, which stand in the way of grassroots activists who merely seek to talk to fellow citizens about matters of public importance. (See the cover story of this issue of Liberty & Law.)

Under these laws, so-called “grassroots lobbyists” must register with the state and file frequent and detailed reports about their private political activities—including who contributes to their efforts, how much they have spent and what activities they have pursued. (Keep in mind, these are not individuals who are lobbying elected officials; they are merely working to inform other residents of their state about important political matters.) In Mowing Down the Grassroots, University of Missouri economist Jeffrey Milyo found that not only do such regulations set a legal trap for unsuspecting citizen activists, but most people would have a difficult time cutting through the red tape to speak without running afoul of the law.

These regulations are extraordinarily complex. The first paragraph of Massachusetts’ new grassroots lobbying law, for example, scored 0.9 on a 100-point scale in a readability test. Going by this measurement, it would take 34 years of formal education to understand that paragraph; not even a doctorate from MIT or Harvard would be enough.

Yet citizens face fines and in some places jail time if they violate grassroots lobbying laws. In New York, the maximum criminal penalty is $5,000 and four years in jail, equivalent to arson or rioting; and in Alabama, it is $30,000 and 20 years, equivalent to the punishment for kidnapping.

So-called grassroots lobbying is nothing less than the democratic process in action—it is something that should be encouraged, not restrained. By exposing how lobbying laws threaten to suppress this activity, Mowing Down the Grassroots is a critical addition to IJ’s campaign to vindicate First Amendment rights to political speech and association.

Lisa Knepper is an IJ director of strategic research.

Subscribe to get Liberty & Law magazine direct to your mailbox!

Sign up to receive IJ's bimonthly magazine, Liberty & Law, along with breaking news updates about the Institute for Justice's fight to protect the rights of all Americans.