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8th Circuit: Missouri Law Requiring Lobbyist Registration Violates Free Speech

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By Laura Temme, Esq. on November 05, 2019

Political activism in Missouri may have just gotten a little easier.

The 8th Circuit recently sided with grassroots activist Ron Calzone, finding that as applied to him, the state's lobbying laws violate Free Speech. Calzone regularly meets with legislators, both in private meetings and before Missouri's General Assembly, often through his non-profit corporation, Missouri First.

The state government viewed Calzone as a lobbyist, saying he would need to follow the registration and reporting requirements of the Missouri Ethics Commission. But, the court of appeals found that because Calzone did not get paid to advocate to state lawmakers, those rules violated his freedom of speech.

Is it Still "Lobbying" if You Don't Get Paid?

The court viewed Missouri's lobbying rules as a "disclosure law" - meaning it would have to stand up to "exacting scrutiny." The state had the burden of showing the law had a substantial relationship to a sufficiently important government interest.

Missouri argued the law served the government's interest in "transparency," but the court observed that the meaning behind that idea was not entirely clear. There are anti-corruption interests, certainly, as well as an interest in letting Missourians know who is influencing their General Assembly. But, the court found that the deciding factor in Calzone's case was the fact that he neither spends nor receives any money in connection to his political activities.

For Some, Lobbyist Rules Present Too High a Burden

Anti-corruption interests, in the abstract, are important. However, the court found that because of the lack of quid pro quo in Calzone's advocacy, corruption issues are not at play. Moreover, the court held that even when speaking through his non-profit, the lobbying rules were still too high a burden:

"Calzone does not lose his First Amendment rights just because he speaks through an organization that shares his perspective."

The court held that lobbyist registration forms along with ongoing obligations like monthly expenditure declarations are too much to ask of someone not getting paid to lobby. Not to mention the fact that failure to comply with the lobbyist rules can result in hefty fines and up to four years in prison.

Missouri free speech advocates praised the decision, saying effective government relies on people like Calzone sharing their ideas - and citizen activists should not be silenced by lobbying rules.

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