ALEXANDRIA, Va. — Today, an Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals panel ruled, 2-1, that unpaid citizen activists can be forced to comply with the same registration, reporting, and disclosure requirements as professional lobbyists working for large corporations. This decision is unprecedented and represents a significant strike against Americans' First Amendment right "to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."
Ron Calzone is a citizen activist from Dixon, Missouri, who has for years traveled to the State Capitol to share his ideas on public policy with legislators. No one gives him any money to share his ideas, and other than his opinions and information, he does not give legislators anything of value. Nonetheless, Missouri's law requires Calzone to register as a lobbyist and to file fourteen reports with the state each year, twelve of which must be filed under penalty of perjury.
In Calzone v. Summers, the majority concluded that the First Amendment does not shield citizen activists from these requirements or the penalties for noncompliance. This represents the first time that any federal appellate court has held that a general governmental interest "in knowing who is pressuring and attempting to influence legislators" - even where no one is giving or receiving anything of value - can justify burdening citizens' political speech.
"Citizens have a responsibility to engage with their elected officials, sharing ideas about how the people should be governed and urging lawmakers to use their power in a responsible, constitutional manner," Calzone said. "This decision empowers faceless, unaccountable bureaucrats to discourage or prevent citizens like me from fulfilling our crucial civic duty."
In his fight, Calzone is represented by lawyers from the Institute for Free Speech and the Freedom Center of Missouri.
"Today's ruling is deeply troubling," said Allen Dickerson, Legal Director of the Institute for Free Speech. "The Court's decision threatens to treat every Boy Scout troop, union, or trade association member who schedules a day with legislators as a registered lobbyist. Where no money is involved, there is no basis for treating a private citizen like a professional influence peddler. The Court's opinion sadly takes us further down the path of regulating even small-scale, volunteer political activity. This path can only lead to the professionalization of our politics and a retreat from citizen engagement."
"The freedom of speech and the freedom to petition those in power regarding the laws that will govern society are two of the most basic rights in our constitutional system," said David Roland, Director of Litigation for the Freedom Center of Missouri. "The Eighth Circuit decided today that those rights may be set aside even where there is no conceivable risk of corruption or the appearance of corruption. This was a tremendous error, and we will seek further review in order to correct it."
In a separate interview, Roland told LakeExpo.com, "We think there is a decent chance the Eighth Circuit will agree to review this en banc. We haven't yet made a final decision, but we're strongly considering asking for en banc review before moving on to the U.S. Supreme Court. One way or another, if the majority's opinion is not reversed we will be asking the Supreme Court to take the case."
Dissenting from the majority opinion, Judge David Stras wrote that the challenged law regulates political speech at the core of the First Amendment, and appears to apply to all sorts of citizens who might attempt to influence lawmakers, such as by attending "Lobby Days" at the Missouri Capitol. In the context of unpaid citizen activists such as Calzone, Stras wrote that neither the government nor the majority explained "why compiling a list of people who are engaging in core political speech is 'important'" to the state.
The Supreme Court has not reviewed a lobbyist registration case since 1954's United States v. Harriss, in which the Court limited the reach of a federal statute to only cover "those who for hire attempt to influence legislation or who collect or spend funds for that purpose." Since then, no federal law has dared to go as far as the Missouri law the panel majority upheld today.