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Federal appeals court upholds Washington law requiring finance disclosure by grassroots lobbying groups

Post by Brad Shannon / The Olympian on Feb. 5, 2013 at 3:32 pm | No Comments »
February 5, 2013 3:59 pm

A decision by the federal 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld Washington state’s decades-old regulations that require public disclosure of grassroots lobbying activities. The decision is here, and a spokeswoman for the state Public Disclosure Commission welcomed the news.

“This challenge was one of several recent attempts to erode Washington State’s voter-enacted disclosure requirements. The Commission views every decision upholding I-276 as a great victory,” PDC spokeswoman Lori Anderson said in an email reply to a reporter.

At issue was a claim brought by two out-of-state groups – Many Cultures, One Voice and Conservative Enthusiasts (also known as Red State Politics) – that said it was unconstitutional for Washington to require them to register with the PDC and report spending on citizen-to-citizen lobbying activities.

The court said neither party had standing, based on their apparent plans, which did not clearly show they would be affected under the law. The lower court had also upheld the statute as constitutional.

The right-of-center Institute for Justice’s state chapter had represented the groups in the action. IJ put out a news release after the Tuesday ruling that says in part: “We disagree with the Court’s decision,” said William Maurer, the executive director of the Institute for Justice Washington Chapter, which represented the two organizations in their challenge to the law. “These organizations stopped engaging in political speech in order to avoid the law. This law silenced their speech and caused a constitutional harm that the court should have addressed.”

Under Washington’s “grassroots lobbying” law, if you never talk to an elected official but spend as little as $500 merely to communicate with your neighbors and friends about state policies, you must register with, and provide information to, the government, which then proceeds to disseminate the information on the Internet. 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.”

There are few things more distinctly American than grassroots political activism. From town hall meetings and statehouse rallies to talk radio, blogs and meetups, Americans are constantly finding new and innovative ways to participate in politics. Through such activities, people can alert elected officials to constituents’ preferences, educate fellow citizens and make their voices heard, and even persuade the public to adopt new views. In fact, it’s hard to imagine our system of government working without an active and engaged populace of grassroots activists.

Both organizations represented by the Institute for Justice are considering their next steps with regard to the suit. Because the trial court in the case had ruled against them on the substance of their claims, both organizations will ask the 9th Circuit to specifically vacate the district court’s substantive decision so that other grassroots activists may challenge the law.

“Since the 9th Circuit dismissed the case on procedural grounds, the trial court decision should be vacated,” said IJ-WA Staff Attorney Jeanette Petersen, who argued the case to the 9th Circuit. “Because there has been no final decision on whether the trial court’s decision was substantively correct—and it was not—other parties should not be bound by a decision which has never been considered by the higher court.”

Anderson of the PDC summarized the state rules as follows  for groups that want to influence the political process without direct advocating for a candidate or initiative:

Disclosure is required when $500 in a month or $1,000 over three consecutive months is spent on grass roots lobbying. Grass roots lobbying is a “call to action” directed at the general public. Signature drives for petitions to the legislature or “call your legislator” ad campaigns are examples of grass roots lobbying. Once the expenditure threshold is reached, the spender files monthly reports disclosing how much is raised & spent. The contribution reporting is just like election campaigns – name & address of anyone who gives more than $25 and occupation & employer for any individual who gives more than $100.

Once again, stay tuned.

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