Citizen Sues Missouri Ethics Commission for First Amendment Violations

Alexandria, VA – The Center for Competitive Politics (CCP) today announced a federal lawsuit and motion for a temporary restraining order has been filed on behalf of Ron Calzone against the Missouri Ethics Commission (MEC). Calzone has been targeted by Missouri State Capitol insiders and the MEC for his volunteer advocacy for individual liberty, free markets, and limited government.

The lawsuit, brought in conjunction with the Freedom Center of Missouri, explains: “This case presents a simple question: Does the First Amendment allow the state of Missouri to punish a citizen simply for sharing political ideas with members of the state legislature, even though no one is paying him to do so?” The answer, say Calzone’s lawyers, is no. Citizens can’t be forced to “register as lobbyists” just because they “speak to legislators about matters of public policy” on their own behalf and without compensation.

“Citizens have a fundamental right to speak with their legislators about forming laws in their states and communities,” stated CCP Staff Attorney Zac Morgan. “Forcing citizens to first register with the government before talking to lawmakers about their beliefs and opinions on public policy is both unconstitutional and extremely dangerous to our First Amendment rights.”

The lawsuit comes on the heels of Calzone’s victory over a complaint filed by his political adversaries on general election day in November of 2014. Last month, Cole County Circuit Court judge, Jon Beetem, ruled that the Missouri Ethics Commission had acted illegally by accepting and pursuing a complaint filed by an entity which was not a “natural person,” as required by statute. With such a ruling, the court could not, however, reach the constitutional questions.

“After nearly two years of wrangling with bureaucrats in Missouri’s broken administrative court system, I am excited about getting this issue before real judges in real courts, where we can get to the core constitutional issues,” said Ron Calzone. “This case is not just about my future activities. It affects scores of other uncompensated citizen activists and anyone else who wants to have a say in the making of the laws they are expected to live under.”

According to the brief filed by CCP and the Freedom Center of Missouri, the MEC wanted to fine Calzone $1,000 even though he was not paid by anyone to speak to legislators and had not been designated to speak on behalf of anyone else.

Worse, the brief notes that “Once the MEC decides to subject a citizen activist such as Mr. Calzone to a probable cause [enforcement] hearing, the citizen must be very careful to avoid engaging in any speech that might be construed as being illegal, and he or she must wait months or years before a court of law determines whether the First Amendment protects that speech.” This is because constitutional objections can’t be considered by the MEC or a state administrative review process. The first complaint took nearly two years to dismiss.

To prevent continued violations of Calzone’s First Amendment right to “petition the Government for a redress of grievances,” the suit asks the court to permanently order the MEC to stop its “enforcement of an unconstitutional law.”

The filing with the court notes that “An untold number of Americans exercise this right every day, whether by writing letters to members of the state and federal legislature, calling or emailing a representative, appearing in-person or in a group in a legislative office, testifying before legislative committees, or even asking a question at a town hall meeting to persuade elected officials concerning public policy and provide them with information.”

“Nevertheless, by applying the law against persons that merely talk to members of the General Assembly, without receiving any compensation and without expending any money on members or their staff, Defendants have threatened the First Amendment rights of anyone who approaches a Missouri legislator or staffer to discuss policy and does so without pay. In doing so, the Ethics Commission has run afoul of the First Amendment.”

In 2014, Mr. Calzone first ran into difficulties with state regulators when the Society of Government Consultants, a state lobbyist group, filed a complaint with the Missouri Ethics Commission. The complaint claimed that Mr. Calzone broke the law when he failed to register as a lobbyist before speaking with legislators, subjecting him to fines and possibly even jail time. A Missouri court threw out the complaint last month since it was filed by a corporation and thus “was not filed by a natural person,” as required by the law. A lobbyist for the Society then refiled the complaint on October 15, 2016.

The lawsuit was filed Friday night in the United States District Court for the Western District of Missouri by CCP attorneys and David E. Roland, Director of Litigation and co-founder of the Freedom Center of Missouri. A copy of the complaint can be read here, and the brief in the case can be read here. Read more about Calzone v. Missouri Ethics Commission here.

The Center for Competitive Politics is now the Institute for Free Speech.