Madison Lobbying Amendment May Burden Small Business Owners' Free Speech

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version

In Madison, Wisconsin, a proposed ordinance that amends a 2001 city law that requires lobbyists to register and report expenses related to their activities could have a chilling effect on public dialogue, according to Sandra Torkildson, owner of A Room of One's Own Bookstore. That's because the ordinance would eliminate the exemption for small business owners, such as Torkildson, who are active advocates in their communities: they would be required to register as lobbyists and to keep detailed records on all their "lobbying" activities -- thereby burdening their First Amendment rights. A decision on the proposed ordinance is expected by the end of March, as reported by the Wisconsin State Journal.

In 2001, Madison passed a lobbying law that required anyone who is paid to influence the city government to register as a lobbyist and report expenses, as reported by the Wisconsin State Journal. A few months ago, some city officials -- including Mayor David Cieslewicz -- created the Proposed Ordinance No. 37309 to close some loopholes in the law, arguing that the ordinance, as it stands now, "permits attorneys, architects, and anyone who owns at least half a business" to avoid having to register as a lobbyist, WSJ reported.

Under 37309 any person who spends more than $500 in lobbying expenditures would be required to register as a lobbyist and file quarterly spending statements. One particular problem with this monetary threshold, Torkildson said, is that these expenditures include the cost of a business owner's time at a public meeting -- even if the owner is not actually being paid by any person or company for being there, and only speaks for a brief period. She noted that she is "trying to have them exclude public hearings in the ordinance."

At present, however, "[The proposal] allows five contacts with an alder person or city official [per year]," said Torkildson. "Going to five public hearings in a year is nothing for me -- I do that in a week!"

As such, under the "vague" ordinance, Torkildson noted she would fall under the definition of a "lobbyist," and would be required to register as such. In a letter to the editor of a local newspaper, Torkildson explained how registering as a lobbyist would encumber the speech of any small business owner active in the city of Madison:

"I would be required to register as a lobbyist each year with the city. When I attend a public meeting, I would be required to sign in as a lobbyist. I would have to keep a detailed report of all expenditures associated with attending the meetings (for example, parking fees, parking tickets, sodas I buy while at the meetings, and the cost of my time even though I am not paid to attend the meetings). If I speak to any city official or at any City Council or committee meeting, I must keep a detailed record of those I speak to and for how long. These records must be provided to the city at the end of every reporting period. This extra record keeping will be a real burden and can only serve to silence my input on public policy."

In a letter to Mayor Cieslewicz, Chris Finan, president of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, wrote: "We can't believe that the City of Madison intends to limit the activity of its most public spirited citizens.... [T]here is a danger that Proposed Ordinance 37903 will silence [Torkildson] and other citizens who own businesses and who have a deep commitment to helping their city.

"We urge you to amend Proposed Ordinance 37309 to ensure that first Amendment rights remain fully protected in Madison."

According to the WSJ, Cieslewicz "said he'd allow up to 10 days of unlimited lobbying annually, provided the owner spent less than $500." --David Grogan