Mowing Down the Grassroots

My research on grassroots lobbying laws reveals that these regulations are not written in a manner accessible to laypersons. So not only is it easy for people to run afoul of such laws, they may be intimidated by them. The first paragraph of Massachusetts’ new grassroots lobbying law, for example, scored 0.9 on a 100-point scale in a readability test. Going by such tests, it would take 34 years of formal education to understand that paragraph; not even a doctorate from MIT or Harvard would be enough.

Moreover, the red tape would‐be grassroots lobbyists must navigate to properly disclose activities and financial support is complex and burdensome. In previous research, ordinary citizens who tried to fill out similar forms correctly completed only about 40 percent of tasks.

Yet many states impose large fines and criminal penalties for violating grassroots lobbying regulations; for example, in Alabama, repeated violations could land you in prison for 20 years -- a punishment equivalent to that of kidnapping. Further, mandatory disclosure of contributors to grassroots political groups may deter some people from getting involved because of the loss of privacy and out of fear of retribution for supporting a controversial position.

In a country whose Constitution guarantees free speech and the right to petition the government, how did we get to the point where the act of discussing legislation with fellow citizens requires permission from and monitoring by the government?  Regulations on political speech are always appealing when we imagine them applied to others, and incumbent politicians will always exploit opportunities to stifle potential opposition. But in a free society, elected officials ought to listen to constituent concerns or debate ideas in the open, as the framers of the First Amendment intended, rather than mowing down the grassroots with regulation.