Federal lawsuit challenges Alabama requirement for ethics training before lobbying public officials

Maggie Ellinger-Locke
Maggie Ellinger-Locke

Can the state of Alabama require an ethics law class before exercising First Amendment rights?

According to the Alabama Ethics Commission, it can and does.

Virginia-based public interest law firm Institute for Justice filed a new federal lawsuit on behalf of Maggie Ellinger-Locke and the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP).

At issue is an Alabama law requiring all registered lobbyists to attend an ethics class offered only four times a year and in only one place – Montgomery.

Founded in 1995, MPP is the largest organization in the U.S. focused on ending the prohibition on marijuana. According to the group’s website: “MPP’s mission is to change federal law to allow states to determine their own marijuana policies without federal interference, as well as to regulate marijuana like alcohol in all 50 states, D.C., and the five territories.”

Paul Sherman

Part of Ellinger-Locke’s job, says IJ Senior Attorney Paul Sherman in a recent op-ed, is to talk with legislators and government officials in nearly a dozen states on ways to make marijuana policy “more just, sensible and humane.”

“Unfortunately for her,” Sherman writes, “all lobbyists in Alabama are required to take an in-person ethics class.” The problem is, Ellinger-Locke lives in Arlington, Virginia and works at the MPP headquarters in Washington DC.

Sherman also points out that mayors, city and county council members, as well as members of local boards of education, are each required to take similar training – a program that could easily be offered online.

Nevertheless, Sherman adds that such a requirement is not only bad public policy but also unconstitutional. That is why IJ filed a First Amendment challenge in federal court.

“If a person wants to talk to an elected official about a matter of public policy,” Sherman concludes, “they shouldn’t have to take a government-mandated class. Instead, the only thing they should need is an opinion.”

Sherman and MPP Director of State Policies Karen O’Keefe will be available to discuss the case and answer questions on the case through IJ’s conference line – 800-326-6981 (Password: 415681) – beginning 9:30 a.m. CST (10:30 EST) Wednesday.


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