Institute for Justice · August 31, 2016

Arlington, Va.— Can Alabama require you to take a class on state ethics law in order to exercise your First Amendment rights? That is the question raised by a new federal lawsuit filed today by the Institute for Justice (IJ) on behalf of Maggie Ellinger-Locke and the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), which challenges an Alabama law that requires all registered lobbyists to attend an ethics class offered only four times a year—and only in Montgomery, Alabama.

Maggie Ellinger-Locke is legislative counsel at MPP, a national nonprofit that seeks to reform state and federal marijuana policy. As part of her duties, she monitors legislative developments in 11 states, and she frequently talks with elected officials in those states about pending or potential legislation. But if Maggie talks with legislators in Alabama, she will be required to register as a lobbyist and must travel to Montgomery within 90 days of registration to attend a one-hour class on Alabama ethics law.

That is a problem because Maggie does not live anywhere near Montgomery. She lives nearly 800 miles away in Arlington, Virginia, and works mainly out of MPP’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. And Maggie is not alone. Public records indicate that more than 15% of Alabama’s currently registered lobbyists live outside Alabama and that, on average, all currently registered lobbyists live more than 130 miles from Montgomery.

“When I learned about Alabama’s training requirement, I was astonished,” said Maggie. “Americans have a First Amendment right to talk to elected officials, and I shouldn’t have to travel hundreds of miles and spend hundreds of dollars to take a class in order to pick up the phone or send an email.”

Although Maggie requested an accommodation from the Alabama Ethics Commission to allow her to take the mandatory ethics class remotely, the Commission denied that request in a published advisory opinion.

The new lawsuit, filed today by the Institute for Justice on behalf of Maggie and MPP, argues that Alabama’s training requirement for lobbyists violates the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

IJ Senior Attorney Paul Sherman said, “The government cannot force you to take a class before you exercise your First Amendment rights. We do not impose that burden on parade organizers or public speakers or journalists, and we should not impose it on people who simply want to talk to state officials about matters of public policy.”

The Institute for Justice has also filed a motion for preliminary injunction, urging the court to allow Maggie and MPP to begin speaking to Alabama elected officials immediately. Maggie said, “I would love to be able to talk with Alabama lawmakers about ways they can build on recent reforms like Carly’s Law and Leni’s Law, which provided important protections for medical-marijuana patients. And I would be doing that right now if Alabama would let me.”

Laws like Alabama’s impose particularly heavy burdens on national nonprofit organizations. MPP Director of State Policies Karen O’Keefe explained, “As a group that speaks to elected officials in all 50 states, MPP is seriously hampered by requirements like Alabama’s. Nonprofits like MPP could easily end up losing weeks of employee time and spending tens of thousands of dollars on travel if other states adopted similar training requirements. That is time and money that is not being spent advocating for our cause.”

IJ Attorney Sam Gedge said, “This case is a perfect illustration of how burdensome lobbying laws make it harder for ordinary people and nonprofit groups to get involved in the political process. Under the First Amendment, if you want to talk with an elected official about a matter of public policy, the only thing you should need is an opinion and a phone.”