This piece originally appeared in The Federalist on January 28, 2020.
Nobody likes lobbyists, except maybe their families. Whether associated with self-interested men bending an irritated President Grant’s ear at the Willard Hotel, or Big Tobacco’s operatives in Washington, the term “lobbyist” does not connote “public-minded.”
There’s a reason candidates don’t brag about the number of lobbyists who gave them money or tout the endorsements of lobbyists when advocating for specific legislation. Perhaps that distaste is why a man named Ron Calzone was so surprised when the state of Missouri ordered him to register as a lobbyist.
Ron doesn’t look or act the part of a “lobbyist.” A rancher from Dixon, Missouri, Ron is a devout believer in limited government. He often takes up the post of a citizen’s “watchmen on the walls” in the capitol at Jefferson City. He talks to legislators, volunteers to testify in committees, and has even won pro se lawsuits against the state.
This behavior upset some folks. Specifically, some powerful legislators who didn’t care for Ron. To punish him for speaking his mind, they engineered an ethics complaint that accused Ron of flouting lobbyist registration and reporting laws. The government eventually told Ron he had to pay a $1,000 fine and submit to the state’s arcane lobbyist registration regime if he wished to continue his civic engagement.
Ron is an unpaid volunteer. He doesn’t give gifts to lawmakers. He simply advocates. But the government argued that didn’t matter, because Ron publicly associated himself with an organization called Missouri First. Missouri First is a group Ron created nearly 20 years ago. Its bank account was closed for a lack of funds, and it has made no expenditures of any kind—let alone to Ron or legislators—in years.
That’s where my organization, the Institute for Free Speech, along with another pro bono constitutional shop, the Freedom Center of Missouri, came in. As the federal appellate court for the District of Columbia once recognized, “[l]obbying is of course a pejorative term, but another name for it is petitioning for the redress of grievances. It is under the express protection of the First Amendment.”
For the last four years, before the state’s ethics commission and in state and federal court, we consistently argued that Ron could not be forced to bear the burdens of paying a fee and filing reports as a “lobbyist” in order to talk to lawmakers. Ron would suffer more than improper labeling as a lobbyist: his activism would also require that his address become a permanent public presence in an online government database. For his public-spirited actions, he would be required to file 14 reports a year, 12 under penalty of perjury.
Through the course of our litigation, three different Missouri attorneys general, including now-Sen. Josh Hawley, kept the pressure on. In federal court, they argued that monitoring anyone “who is operating in the political arena is a valid governmental interest regardless” of whether financial power or mere words are at work.
Missouri held firm even though this theory would render every Planned Parenthood, National Rifle Association, or American Civil Liberties activist who joins a “lobby day”—where a nonprofit group gets active citizens to meet with their representatives in the capitol—as registered lobbyists. In fact, the state argued that without the surveillance of people like Ron, “a democratic government structure would not exist.” We politely suggested that the opposite was the case.
It took a while for the Constitution to be vindicated. Ron first lost his case in both federal district court and the court of appeals. But after a three-judge panel of the Eighth Circuit sided with the state by a 2-1 margin over a vigorous dissent, the entire court—all 11 judges—took the unusual step of rehearing the case.
Almost five years to the day after this all started, the full Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals handed down its ruling. The court declared that because “Calzone’s political activities do not involve the transfer of money or anything of value, either to him or to anyone else,” Missouri’s efforts to regulate Ron like a professional lobbyist were unconstitutional.
Not all the judges agreed. One dissenting opinion sneered that we were “casting Calzone as a modern-day folk hero who wants nothing more than to be free to petition his government” and should be ignored. Well, anyone who thinks legislators should listen to their constituents, rather than ignore or punish them for speaking their mind, ought to be singing along with us to “The Ballad of Ron Calzone.”
It starts like this: “Congress shall make no law…abridging the right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”