A federal appeals court last week rejected a challenge to a Washington State law that requires a person or entity to register and file reports as a lobbyist for grassroots lobbying. Registration is triggered by receiving or spending just $500 in any 30-day period (or $1,000 in any 90-day period) to influence legislation. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that the plaintiffs were not appropriate parties to challenge the constitutionality of the law and rejected the appeal without deciding the constitutional question.

The case is a timely reminder of the broad scope of many state and local lobbying laws. These laws cover not only direct lobbying of legislators, but may require an issue organization or a group of loosely-associated citizens to register as a lobbyist merely for encouraging the public to contact government officials about a pending bill or legislative proposal. As in Washington State, the monetary thresholds requiring registration can be quite low: eleven states require registration for spending just $200-$500 and a number of others kick in at $2,000-$5,000.

For example, if a neighborhood watch spends $200 on flyers urging people to contact a legislator to vote on a bill funding police, that group could be required to register as a lobbyist. Or an organization could set up a website where members of the public can sign a petition urging legislators to pass or defeat a pending bill, and if the setup costs exceed the threshold, that organization would be required to register and report as a lobbyist.

The bottom line is to be cautious before beginning a grassroots campaign. Many states have low registration and reporting thresholds, broad definitions of lobbying that cover letter-writing campaigns and other grassroots activity, and can impose harsh civil or criminal penalties for violations.