Victory for political speech in Alabama, in-person ethics training requirement dropped

Maggie Ellinger-Locke

Move over burdensome ethics requirements, a victory for free speech is coming through.

On Monday, the Virginia-based public interest law firm Institute for Justice (IJ) announced that following their federal lawsuit, that they filed on behalf of Maggie Ellinger-Locke and the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), the Alabama Ethics Commission dropped its burdensome, in-state training requirement for private citizens who want to speak with state lawmakers.

Previously, Alabama law required all registered lobbyists — and the state has expansive definition of “lobbyist” would — to physically attend an ethics class offered only four times a year and in only one place – Montgomery.

This requirement presented a major hurdle for Maggie Ellinger-Locke, who works at the MPP headquarters in Washington, DC and wanted to reach out to Alabama officials to behalf of the company. She had intended to contact them by phone, but under Alabama’s lobbying laws, those phone calls would have required Maggie to register as an official lobbyist and travel nearly 800 miles, to Montgomery, to attend the state’s hour-long ethics class.

The Ethics Commission has now dropped the wearying rule and has agreed lobbyists can take the training online rather than physically traveling to the Yellowhammer State.

“Lobbying government officials about matters of public policy rests at the very core of the First Amendment’s protection for the right to petition the government,” said Paul Sherman, a senior attorney with IJ, which represents Maggie and MPP. “We are glad that the Ethics Commission agreed to a common-sense fix that honors the right of citizens from across the country to talk to lawmakers free from unreasonable regulation.”

According to a press release from the IJ, “while other states have ethics-training requirements for lobbyists, Alabama was unique in requiring people to physically travel to the state capital to comply with the law.”

Public records indicated that at the time Maggie filed her lawsuit, more than 15 percent of Alabama’s registered lobbyists lived outside Alabama and that all registered lobbyists lived, on average, more than 130 miles from Montgomery.

“I’m thrilled that the Ethics Commission has brought its law into the twenty-first century,” said Maggie. “It’s critical that states make it easier—not harder—for Americans to communicate with their elected officials.”

Live-streaming training from the Ethics Commission will be available by May 2017.