9th Circuit Dismisses Challenge to Constitutionality Of Washington’s “Grassroots” Lobbying Law On Procedural Grounds; Doesn’t Reach Merits of Case

John Kramer
John Kramer · February 4, 2013

Arlington, Va.—Today, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed a challenge to Washington’s so-called “grassroots” lobbying law, which requires ordinary Washingtonians to register with the state as lobbyists if they spend even a relatively small amount of money urging their fellow citizens to speak with members of the state government. The court concluded that the two activist organizations—Many Cultures, One Message (MCOM) and Conservative Enthusiasts (CE)—challenging the law had not clearly demonstrated that they intended to undertake activities that would bring them within the reach of the law. The case is Many Cultures, One Message v. Clements.

“We disagree with the Court’s decision,” said William Maurer, the executive director of the Institute for Justice Washington Chapter, which represented the two organizations in their challenge to the law. “These organizations stopped engaging in political speech in order to avoid the law. This law silenced their speech and caused a constitutional harm that the court should have addressed.”

Under Washington’s “grassroots lobbying” law, 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 civil and criminal 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.”

There are few things more distinctly American than grassroots political activism. From town hall meetings and statehouse rallies to talk radio, blogs and meetups, 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 and 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.

Both organizations represented by the Institute for Justice are considering their next steps with regard to the suit. Because the trial court in the case had ruled against them on the substance of their claims, both organizations will ask the 9th Circuit to specifically vacate the district court’s substantive decision so that other grassroots activists may challenge the law.

“Since the 9th Circuit dismissed the case on procedural grounds, the trial court decision should be vacated,” said IJ-WA Staff Attorney Jeanette Petersen, who argued the case to the 9th Circuit. “Because there has been no final decision on whether the trial court’s decision was substantively correct—and it was not—other parties should not be bound by a decision which has never been considered by the higher court.”