Do you donate to the Sierra Club or the National Rifle Association? California Attorney General Kamala Harris wants to know who you are, what your address is and how much you give.
Several weeks ago, the organization for which I work, the Goldwater Institute, received a demand from Harris’ office to turn over a copy of private tax information that includes the names and addresses of our contributors. Although this information is protected from disclosure under both the First Amendment and federal tax law, refusing to comply with this demand would presumably result in our organization losing its ability to solicit new members in California.
Harris’ demands are part of a broader national effort to force private nonprofit organizations that want to engage in political dialogue to turn their donors’ names, addresses and contribution amounts over to the government. Couched as “transparency” measures, these mandates are actually a concerted effort to stifle speech with which disclosure advocates disagree.
This is disturbing for a number of reasons.
Private giving is a fundamental part of charitable activity. Ever seen “anonymous” listed on a donor wall? Disclosure mandates would ban this act of selflessness unless you’re willing to give your name to the government.
Private giving also prevents retaliation against speakers by those who disagree, particularly when speaking truth to power. From the 1960s civil rights era to today’s most contentious debates, groups have sought the identities of opponents to threaten, harass and intimidate them into silence. Privacy has been essential for unfettered dialogue in politics, literature, the arts and journalism, among many other fields.
That’s why the Constitution prevents these types of government intrusions.
In 1956, Alabama’s attorney general sought to compel the NAACP to turn over its member list. When the group refused, the case made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Recognizing the “vital relationship between freedom to associate and privacy in one’s associations,” a unanimous court ruled against Alabama, upholding a fundamental principle under the First Amendment.
While disclosure advocates often promote transparency in politics, Harris’ demand is particularly astounding because it extends to groups that are forbidden by law from engaging in electoral politics.
The Goldwater Institute is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. That means we can, and do, engage in dialogue about some of our nation’s most pressing issues, including reforming public schools, limiting regulations on start-up business and allowing dying people to take non FDA-approved medications.
But we cannot, and do not, participate in candidates’ campaigns. While the institute maintains the privacy of our donors, about two-thirds of our funding comes from individuals and one third from foundations.
Our organization is one of nearly one million 501(c)(3) charities that include schools, churches, hospitals, art centers, public radio stations, research groups, legal aid clinics and neighborhood soup kitchens. Ideologically, they range from the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for American Progress on the left to the Cato Institute and the Americans for Prosperity Foundation (which sued Harris over this issue in December) on the right.
Harris claims a law enforcement purpose in collecting the names and addresses of donors, but this justification is no more persuasive than the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of Americans’ phone records without lawful authority. As the state’s chief law enforcement officer, Harris should know that court warrants are required, lest we all fall within their dragnet.
Every American has the right to support the causes we believe in without the fear of harassment and retaliation. Disclosure mandates undermine this basic freedom, dry up donations to charities and silence political speech.
Jon Riches is the national litigation director at the Goldwater Institute, a Phoenix-based nonprofit advocacy group. He can be contacted at email@example.com.