Seattle, Wash.—Washingtonians from both sides of the political spectrum filed a lawsuit today to stop their state from monitoring, collecting and publicly disseminating information about the political activities of private citizens who do nothing more than urge their fellow citizens to take political action. They seek to vindicate the belief that if the First Amendment protects anything, it protects the right of all Americans to speak to one another about the issues affecting their lives without having to first register with the government.
There are few things more distinctly American than grassroots political activism. From town hall meetings and statehouse rallies to talk radio, blogs and “meet ups,” 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 about how to 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.
But little-known laws existing in a majority of states threaten to strangle this kind of political participation with red tape, ensuring that the public square is occupied by only those established voices that have enough resources to overcome the immense burdens imposed by so-called “grassroots lobbying” laws. These laws require groups to register with the state and file frequent and detailed reports about their contributions, expenditures and activities.
Under Washington’s “grassroots lobbying” law, if you urge your fellow citizens to contact government officials and spend more than the state’s arbitrarily low ceiling (only $500 in one month or $1,000 in three months), the government forces you to register with it and report your name, address, business and occupation, as well as the names and addresses of anyone with whom you are working to spread your message. The state also demands to know the names and addresses of each person who contributes more than $25 to your efforts.
Simply put: Even 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 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.”
“Many grassroots organizations will simply forego speaking because the burdens of disclosure are so high and the costs of incorrectly reporting so steep,” said Institute for Justice Washington Chapter Executive Director Bill Maurer, which filed suit on behalf of the small, Washington-based, citizen activist organizations challenging the law. “This is unacceptable under the First Amendment, which unreservedly protects speech about politics. Our goal in this case is to begin rolling back regulations on grassroots activism in the states and ensure that efforts to pass such regulations at the federal level are stopped once and for all.”
The sweeping lobbying laws of 36 states threaten to strangle grassroots movements with red tape and regulation, according to University of Missouri economist and campaign-finance scholar Jeffrey Milyo in a new report, “Mowing Down the Grassroots: How Grassroots Lobbying Disclosure Suppresses Political Participation,” published by the Institute for Justice. (The report is available at: www.ij.org/MowingDownTheGrassroots.)