It’s over . . . but it’s not.
A conscientious Show-Me state citizen activist has won his case, but . . .
A year ago, the unethical Missouri Ethics Commission fined Ron Calzone $1,000 for not paying a silly $10 fee. To register as a lobbyist. They also ordered him to stop talking to state legislators until he complied.
Citizen Calzone didn’t register.
He didn’t pay.
And he didn’t shut up.
Instead, he contacted the Freedom Center of Missouri, co-founded by attorneys Dave and Jennifer Roland, and the Center for Competitive Politics, the national outfit that defends our rights to participate in our supposedly participatory and representative democratic republic.
On Monday, a judge ruled in Ron’s favor, tossing out the “ethics complaint” against him. On a technicality, actually. The complain hadn’t been filed by a “natural person,” as the law requires, but by the attorney for the Missouri Society of Governmental Consultants, the state lobbyist guild.
Winning is better than losing, of course, but too bad the result did not better bring out and bolster the underlying issue: the critical ability of people to speak to public officials, to agitate, to support and oppose legislation without opening themselves up to government reprisal.
You see, we have rights . . . including the freedom to talk to those representing us. (Or pretending to represent us.) In short, if some real person, instead of a special interest group, bothers to try again against Calzone, filing the complaint properly, Calzone would still win.
It is not at all certain that government has any constitutional authority to regulate paid lobbyists. But Mr. Calzone is not a paid lobbyist. He volunteers for Missouri First, a citizen group. The very basis of regulating professional lobbyists is that they are . . . well, paid. Often very well-paid. And that their compensation makes them mercenaries, who might therefore be corrupted, or under our fuzzy modern thinking, just appear to be corrupted.
On the other hand, it is as certain as any legal matter can be in these uncertain times that no basis exists for the State to so regulate private, uncompensated citizens exercising their fundamental First Amendment rights to lobby legislators and other public officials. Can citizens be charged a fee to use their freedoms?
If they can, we have no freedom.
So, in practical terms, why did the state speech police’s long arm reach out to grab Ron Calzone?
More than a forthright advocate for what he believes, he has proven smart enough to find ways to allow fellow freedom-lovers to weigh in on bills they favor or oppose. This has endeared him neither to legislators, who would rather represent themselves than you or other citizens, nor the lobbying “community” — professionals paid handsomely to consistently lose to Calzone’s grassroots network.
“Average citizens have acted in harmony to stop hundreds of millions of dollars worth of graft that would have otherwise benefited the people who hire herds of professional lobbyists,” Calzone wrote in response to the charge against him. “No doubt, it’s hard for those lobbyists to explain how average men and women can, with no budget and with no palm greasing, beat them so often!”
It warms the heart.
But make no mistake: The powers-that-be will strike back. You can count on it. Power is relentless. That’s why Thomas Jefferson once wrote, “The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground.”
That is, unless there are folks like Ron Calzone, people paying attention to liberty and committed to acting on principle.
Last Thursday, I had occasion to think of Mr. Calzone and the many others that I’ve been honored to work with across this country. I was at the San Francisco Freedom Forum, trying to control my emotions in a dimly lit ballroom. The event, organized by the Human Rights Foundation, is an expansion of the long-running Oslo Freedom Forum. Listening to courageous pro-democracy patriots from all across the world share their harrowing stories, I became verklempt.
So, what does Mr. Calzone have to do with Hyeoseo Lee, who not only escaped from North Korea, the world’s most totalitarian regime, but later returned to help her family get out as well?
Or Yula Marushevska, the Ukrainian anti-corruption crusader, whose powerful YouTube video, entitled “I Am a Ukrainian,” helped the world see and feel the importance of the Euromaidan protests?
Or Zineb E Rhazoui, who co-authored the comic book, The Life of Mohamed, with slain Charlie Hebdo editor Stéphane Charbonnier, and now lives under an ISIS death sentence?
Or Garry Kasparov, arguably the greatest chess player of all-time, who retired to work for human rights, to try to stop Russia’s slide back into totalitarianism and ran for office against Russian president Vladimir Putin and is now chairman of the Human Rights Foundation?
Or Rosa María Payá, with the Cuba Decides campaign, who spoke about the murder of her father, Oswaldo Payá, a vocal Cuban dissident, at the bloody hands of the Castro regime?
Sure, it is noticeably less dangerous to battle to keep what freedoms we have won and enjoy and to expand those freedoms in Missouri — in America, in the West — than for those facing torture, death, and imprisonment in Cuba or Russia or North Korea or ISIS-occupied territory.
But the fight for freedom is never over. Not anywhere.
Just ask Mr. Calzone.