Who would think that in America you can get a $1,000 fine for exercising your freedom of speech? Well, I just did.
I am a political activist. Just like thousands of other activists all over the state across the political spectrum, I go out of my way to talk to those in power about what I think our state’s laws should look like. When average citizens share their political opinions, exercise freedom of speech and petition the government regarding the laws we live under, they are doing exactly what America’s Founders had in mind when they established a self-governing constitutional republic.
They are not lobbyists and neither am I. Lobbyists are professionals paid by their clients to persuade politicians to vote in their clients’ interests. Lobbyists also use money to buy politicians’ attention, providing them with food or other gifts. I share my political ideas only because I believe in them passionately; no one has ever paid me to talk to an elected official and I don’t buy lawmakers gifts.
My activism has made some powerful enemies. Along with a host of other citizen activists, I vigorously oppose things like eminent domain abuse and giving subsidies and other government largess to corporations or other special interests. Maybe high-paid lobbyists don’t like having to explain to their clients why average citizens, using nothing more than facts, reason and speech, beat them at their own game time and again.
I have also angered powerful legislators by opposing them when they were trying to advance unconstitutional bills or ignore constitutional limits on their power.
On Election Day last November, the professional lobbyists’ guild, with the blessing of (and possibly at the prompting of) at least two influential legislators, decided to try to punish me and scare away other activists for exercising our constitutional freedoms. They filed a complaint with the Missouri Ethics Commission claiming that I should face fines (making prison a possibility), because I had not registered with the state as a legislative lobbyist.
Although state law prohibits the Ethics Commission from accepting complaints from any entity that is not a “natural person,” they accepted the guild’s complaint anyway. And although the law requires that they reveal the identity of the complainant within five days, the Ethics Commission took over two months to tell me who the real complainant was. Then this panel of six men and women, all appointed by the governor, held a hearing behind closed doors with their own lawyer arguing against me. So much for impartial judges, the rule of law and transparency.
There was no evidence that I have ever been hired or paid by anyone for the purpose of talking to legislators, but using uncommon and strained definitions of “designated” and “employed,” the commission decided that I must register as a lobbyist and fined me $1,000 for failing to do so in the past. Nothing they are ordering me to do increases the transparency of my activities.
Why should you care?
This conclusion was not just contrary to the state’s own definition of what a lobbyist is, it was an attack on the constitutional rights of any citizen who tries to share their political ideas with those in power. If I can be confronted with fines and criminal penalties, just for speaking my mind and even when there is no money whatsoever involved in my efforts, then the government can threaten and intimidate anyone.
That is why, with help from two public interest law firms, the Center for Competitive Politics and the Freedom Center of Missouri, I am appealing the ethics commission’s ruling against me. I will fight this case as long and as far as I must, not only on my own behalf, but on behalf of all citizens who have opinions about how our state should be governed and wish to exercise their constitutional right to share those opinions with our elected officials.
Ron Calzone lives in Maries County in central Missouri, where he raises cattle and horses and owns a small manufacturing business. He is also one of the directors of Missouri First, a think tank devoted to limited, constitutional governance.