anti-grassroots-lobbying laws violate 1st amendment

Mowing Down the Grassroots

how grassroots lobbying disclosure laws suppress political participation



By Jeffrey Milyo, Ph.D.  

Download the pdf at Mowing Down the Grassroots to read the complete 28 page article.

From:  The Institute for Justice


“Grassroots lobbying is any effort to organize, coordinate or implore others to contact public officials in order to affect public policy.”  Thirty-six states have grassroots lobbying laws that severely restrict people’s ability to legally organize to influence policy at all levels of government and make the 1st amendment right to “petition” the government a sham. 


Definition of Lobbying

Many people are participating in grassroots lobbying and likely violating the related registration, disclosure and reporting laws without even knowing it.  In California, for instance, both "Direct and indirect communication with public officials" constitutes lobbying.

Examples of grassroots lobbying include but are not limited to:

  • publishing an open letter
  • organizing a demonstration
  • distributing flyers
  • sending emails to personal and business contacts
  • posting flyers
  • inviting people to you home for refreshments and passing around a petition
  • posting an open letter on social media

Legal Traps

Thirty-six states have laws regulating these types of activities.  These laws are described as legal traps for unwary citizens.  They are not intended to be understood.  The first paragraph of the Massachusetts statute controlling grassroots lobbying has a readability of 0.9 using standard readability tests with a scale that runs from 0 to 100 with anything lower than 30 considered “very confusing”.  To make things as confusing as possible, the state of Washington lists 11 different types of lobbyists. 

Penalties for Violation

Penalties for violating grassroots lobbying laws vary from state to state but 14 states include prison terms for violators.  The penalties can be quite severe. For instance, the maximum penalty for violations caries the same penalty as the following crimes:

  • New York                   Arson or riot
  • Massachusetts             Maintaining a house of prostitution
  • Virginia                      Hit and run resulting in serious injury or death
  • Alabama                     Kidnapping

In Alabama you can get fined $30,000 and put in prison for 20 years.

Although these laws are frequently not enforced, they can be and are when those in power feel threatened.  In 2009, for instance, Rev. William Lori, of the Bridgeport Diocese of the Catholic Church, was threatened with multiple $10,000 fines for organizing a protest to the Connecticut legislature’s plan to pass a law requiring lay persons to control organizations that own church property, effectively stripping the bishops and pastors of control over church finances.  Rev. Lori sued and the state dropped the charges.  But you may not be so lucky if you don’t have an organization the size of the Catholic Church behind you.


These laws greatly increase the cost of trying to influence our public “servants.”  This creates a situation where only professional lobbyists and those who have the money to hire them can lobby, undermining real democracy.    


Aside from the high compliance costs, grassroots lobbying regulations create numerous traps for “hapless citizens that seek to exercise their constitutional rights.”  Ignorance of these laws and failure to comply with their requirements is widespread but that won’t provide an excuse, particularly if you are critical of the government. 

Knowledge of the existence of these laws has a chilling effect on public debate and seriously limits the people’s ability to make their voice heard.  These laws empower “the enemies of free and open debate to make credible threats of retaliation against unpopular voices” that oppose them.  This muffling of dissent will only embolden those who are manipulating government power for the benefit of special interests and themselves, as they realize that they can fly below the radar, without fear of any effective public rage. 


Today, “… should you decide to exercise your rights as an American with only civics lessons and the Bill of Rights as your guide, beware.  … The rights of citizens to participate in their government have been eroded to the point that even professional politicians and lobbyists often must rely on a staff of dedicated legal experts to navigate the maze of federal and state regulations that now govern public discourse. … regulation of grassroots political activity puts ordinary citizens at risk of legal entrapment (and) leaves disfavored groups open to abuse from partisan regulators …” by mowing down the people’s grassroots.

What is needed

The first amendment means nothing if we do not have free political speech.  Consequently, these laws need to be repealed.


9th Circuit Dismisses Challenge to "Grassroots" Lobbying Law

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed a challenge to Washington State's lobbying law that requires ordinary citizens to register with the state as lobbyists if they spend just $500 a year urging their fellow citizens to speak with members of the state government.  The article states, "Failure to register can lead to an investigation, significant civil and criminal penalties (including treble damages, the costs of the investigation and the government’s attorney’s fees), and a revocation of the ability to engage in any political activity that might qualify as 'grassroots lobbying.'"



User Rating: 1 2 3 4 5 (0) Help

Page Contents

Page Attributes

Purpose: Action Opportunities
Type: Spotlight


Page Author (Creator): BornFree
Last Page Editor: BornFree

Content Rating/Stars Module [toggle]

Star Box

Join us and help contribute to Liberty!

Feel free to Sign Up and join our efforts!

This is a "toolbox" called "Star Box".
After joining in you will be able to manage your own personal archive of your favorite LibertyLion content and contribute with many more actions (depending on your user group).

You can resize (drag the handles), minimize (by clicking on the star) or re-open this box again any time.