Federal Appeals Court Urged to Rule that Missouri Can’t Force Volunteers to Register as Lobbyists

Attorneys say First Amendment guarantees right to petition government

Alexandria, VA – A volunteer who talks to state legislators asked a federal appeals court late yesterday to rule that the First Amendment bars the state of Missouri from forcing him to register and report like a professional lobbyist.

Ron Calzone volunteers his time and pays his own expenses to promote limited government when he travels to the state capitol to speak to lawmakers and testify at public hearings. He has never been paid to lobby on anyone’s behalf.

Despite the fact he isn’t paid a cent, the Missouri Ethics Commission (MEC) demands that Mr. Calzone register as a lobbyist and file regular reports with the Commission like a professional lobbyist. Forgetting to include an issue he discussed in lobbyist reports or missing a filing deadline can result in stiff fines. In June, a federal judge ruled in favor of the MEC. Now, in an appeal filed late yesterday, the Center for Competitive Politics (CCP) and the Freedom Center of Missouri have asked the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn that decision.

The argument is simple: Forcing Mr. Calzone to register as a lobbyist for his volunteer advocacy violates the First Amendment right to petition government for a redress of grievances.

“For as long as lobbying has been regulated, courts have recognized the difference between those who influence legislation for hire and those who simply speak their own mind,” said CCP Legal Director Allen Dickerson. “The First Amendment clearly protects Mr. Calzone’s right to speak to legislators about issues of concern to him without first having to register with the state or file onerous reports.”

The MEC argues that the receiving or spending of money is completely irrelevant to a person’s status as a lobbyist. This argument is entirely novel. As the brief explains, “political registration and disclosure regimes, regardless of content, are typically designed to reach only substantial financial transactions that pose a risk of corrupt bargains.”

The lower court held that registering volunteer advocates like Mr. Calzone nonetheless “provides the public with transparency as to who is making efforts to influence the legislature.” But virtually any form of political speech or petition could potentially influence a legislature. This limitless reasoning stands in conflict with the Supreme Court’s history of protecting unpaid speech from regulation.

“Applying this boundless interest was error,” explains the brief, “as the Supreme Court, and this Court, have found that the Petition Clause may only be infringed upon to ensure the legislature and the public are informed about ‘those who for hire attempt to influence legislation or who collect or spend funds for that purpose.'”

“This case is not just about me,” says Calzone. “The Ethics Commission’s claims and this federal judge’s logic puts everyone’s free speech rights at risk. We are all fortunate to have principled public interest law firms fighting to protect our liberty.”

The Center for Competitive Politics is America’s largest nonprofit working solely to promote and defend First Amendment rights to free political speech, press, assembly, and petition. The Freedom Center of Missouri is a nonprofit fighting to secure individual liberty and transparent, accountable, constitutionally-limited government in Missouri. The case, Calzone v. Hagan, is currently before the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.

To read the brief, click here. To read the lower court’s ruling, click here. For more background on the case, click here.