Missouri citizen faces $1,000 fine simply for talking about government policies

Jefferson City, Missouri – On September 3, the Missouri Ethics Commission voted to issue a preliminary order that puts Missouri citizens at risk of fines and criminal prosecution when they speak with lawmakers about public policy. Under that preliminary order, individuals need not be paid by an organization before they can be forced to register as a lobbyist with the state – it is enough to simply mention an organizational affiliation. Two public interest law firms, the Virginia-based Center for Competitive Politics and the Freedom Center of Missouri, have joined forces to defend Missourians against this threat to their freedom to communicate political ideas and to petition their elected officials regarding the laws that will govern them.

Ron Calzone is a rancher and small businessman who lives in the country near Rolla, Missouri. A passionate believer in individual liberty and constitutionally limited government, Calzone regularly discusses these issues and appears as a witness before committees of the General Assembly. He and four friends founded an organization, Missouri First, to help other Missourians keep informed about various state government matters impacting their rights. No one pays Calzone for these efforts, and Calzone does not buy food or gifts for any legislator. His only tools are knowledge, reason, and eloquence, and his only reward is seeing people come to understand his perspectives on public policy.

Nevertheless, after consulting with elected legislators who had previously opposed Calzone’s exercise of his right to free speech and petition, the Missouri Society of Governmental Consultants – a professional association for the state’s paid lobbyists – filed a complaint with the Missouri Ethics Commission. Its theory: that Calzone should be forced to register with the state as a lobbyist, even though no one employs or otherwise pays him to share ideas with government officials.

Registered lobbyists must pay a registration fee and regularly submit reports detailing all of the ways in which they attempted to influence legislation. Not only does the registration requirement put an impermissible condition on a citizen’s constitutionally-protected freedom of speech, it also puts speakers at risk of huge fines – and potential criminal penalties – if the required reports are deemed incomplete.

“The state lobbyist association, and the Commission, appear to think that because Mr. Calzone has publicly mentioned his connection to Missouri First – an organization with zero financial resources – he must register as a lobbyist and must list Missouri First as the corporation on whose behalf he is speaking,” noted Allen Dickerson, Legal Director of the Center for Competitive Politics and the lead attorney representing Calzone. “But that is thankfully not the law in Missouri, and would be unconstitutional if it were. Neither Missouri First nor any other organization has ever designated Mr. Calzone as a lobbyist, or paid him at all for the communication at issue in this case. We are confident that the courts will vindicate Mr. Calzone’s clear constitutional right to engage in uncompensated conversation with officials concerning the laws that will govern this state.”

“The action against Mr. Calzone is, pure and simple, a politically-motivated attack on a citizen who has done nothing more than use his speech to try to persuade others to share his ideas,” said Dave Roland, Director of Litigation for the Freedom Center of Missouri and one of the attorneys representing Calzone. “Courts have long held that the core concern of the First Amendment is to protect citizens against this sort of persecution.”

Nevertheless, after a hearing that put on full display the politically-motivated nature of the complaint against Calzone and the absence of any evidence that anyone pays Calzone for sharing ideas with lawmakers, the Commission voted on September 3 to issue a preliminary order forbidding Calzone from talking with lawmakers about legislation unless he registers as a lobbyist. It also ordered him to pay a $1,000 penalty for exercising his First Amendment rights.

“Average citizens all over the state exercise their constitutional right to talk to elected officials about what they think our laws should look like,” Calzone explained. “I’m fighting against this decision to ensure that those who disagree with citizen activists cannot use the threat of fines or prison to try to scare these activists out of the debate on important political issues.”

Mr. Calzone intends to appeal the Commission’s final order to the Missouri courts, where he will have the opportunity – for the first time – to raise constitutional objections to the Commission’s actions.

Founded by former Federal Election Commission Chairman Bradley A. Smith in 2005, the Center for Competitive Politics is the largest organization dedicated to protecting and defending the First Amendment’s political rights of speech, petition, and assembly. Additional information about CCP may be found online at www.campaignfreedom.org.

Founded in November 2010, the Freedom Center of Missouri is a non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to research, litigation, and education in defense of individual liberty and constitutionally limited government. The Freedom Center is one of Missouri’s leading legal advocates for the freedom of speech and participation in the political process. Additional information about the Freedom Center’s mission, cases, and activities can be found online at www.mofreedom.org.