Mowing Down the Grassroots

Is there anything more quintessentially American than grassroots political activism? From colonial pamphleteers to abolitionists and suffragettes, through the civil-rights and anti-war movements and up to the modern day tea party rallies, Americans have vigorously exercised their rights to assembly, speech, and petition.

As first observed by Toqueville and later celebrated in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, the spirit of American democracy is our willingness -- and ability -- to make our voices heard in an attempt to persuade others of the rightness of our political causes.

But nowadays, you need more than just the courage of your convictions and a soapbox to engage in public debate; in fact, in most states, you’ll need a good lawyer. That is because the lobbying laws of at least 36 states threaten to strangle grassroots efforts in red tape and regulation -- even if the speakers never contact an elected official, but merely talk to fellow citizens about issues of public importance.

In many states, if you dare to publicly discuss legislative or regulatory matters -- for example, by publishing an open letter, organizing a demonstration, speaking at a rally, distributing flyers, or displaying a yard sign (actions that are in no way directly lobbying an officeholder) -- you will likely fall under the legal definition of lobbying. If you urge other citizens to contact their representatives about a piece of legislation, that is enough to make you a lobbyist in most states. But in some states, any activity that is undertaken with the intent of influencing government action, even just talking to your friends and neighbors, can be enough to make you a lobbyist in the eyes of the government.

Lobbyists, even informal and amateur grassroots activists, are subject to a maze of regulations and legal restrictions. So-called “grassroots lobbyists” (those who are merely urging their neighbors into political action) must register with the state and file reports on their activities. Often this means itemizing expenditures or contributions, including donated items, and it may mean reporting the names and addresses of supporters. Such regulations set a legal trap for unsuspecting citizens: other than professional politicians and lobbyists, who would think to consult a lawyer and register with the state before speaking out on a public issue?