Americans have a right to free speech, and that doesn’t go away when they choose to use their speech to advance political causes. In fact, we’d argue that standing up to the government is the time free speech is the most vital.
Throughout history, the US Constitution has been an outlier in protecting this right though, and the ongoing campaigns to target political opponents and shut down their speech prove just how necessary the First Amendment was and continues to be.
Lately these campaigns have been coming in the form of attacks on donor privacy—a long held and important extension of the First Amendment. Make no mistake, how one uses their money is a form of expression and thus protected by our free speech clauses—and this has been backed up by additional laws and the US Supreme Court on numerous occasions.
Because many donors fear they may be targeted for the ways in which they spend their money and for the causes they support (a very valid concern), the United States offers donor privacy for those who use their means to advance causes by donating to nonprofits. 501(c)3 organizations do not have to disclose who gives them money, enabling donors to freely support causes they care about without fear of repercussion.
But many on the Left have been trying to undo those protections for some time, and the motivations and implications of these initiatives are quite sinister.
Arizona recently introduced a proposal known as Proposition 211, which they’ve disingenuously titled the “Voters’ Right to Know Act.” According to the Philanthropy Roundtable, an organization that works to protect philanthropic freedom, this proposal “mandates that nonprofit organizations divulge the personal information of some of their donors, including names, addresses, employers, and contribution sums, to the government if these organizations participate in discussions about public matters.” The proposition also enforces a new requirement on nonprofits that spend over $50,000 within a span of two years to address policy issues before an election, compelling them to publicly reveal any donor who has contributed more than $5,000 during the same two-year period.
The legislation is unconstitutional, plain and simple. A person does not give up their rights to free speech or to privacy because they choose to participate in our political system. Frankly, it would be hard to come up with a less American and democratic proposal. We need people to be more active in our system and governmental proceedings not less. Demanding nonprofits turn over information about their donors, and to the government no less, is a scare tactic meant to intimidate Americans from using their money—hence speech—to influence the political system.
In 2021, the grassroots organization Americans for Prosperity (which I have often consulted for) advanced a lawsuit to the US Supreme Court known as AFPF vs. Bonta following a similar attempt in California to force donor disclosures in the state. SCOTUS ruled 6-3 against the state in that case, establishing further protections on top of the groundbreaking Citizens United case in 2010 that entrenched important free speech and donor privacy protections in the law. Proposition 211 flies in the face of both.
Arizona is home to 29,000 nonprofits and their people give more than $3.6 billion to charitable causes each year. Proposition 211 is a gross infringement on basic civil liberties that is obviously meant to chill political involvement in the state. What is the point of publicizing the names of people involved in certain political causes? To harass them, malign them online, get them fired from their jobs, intimidate them, show up at their houses, scare their children. There’s no way to spin the motivations behind these kinds of bills.
It must not be allowed to stand.
And to be clear, this is by no means the only assault of this kind we’re seeing right now. Numerous other states are facing similar proposals and recently the United States House Committee on Ways and Means began requesting information to “further understand and examine the political activities of tax-exempt organizations under Section 501 of the Internal Revenue Code.” The members claim to be particularly interested in information regarding questionable nonprofit expenditures and foreign donations to nonprofit organizations—a familiar guise that has been used to argue against rulings like Citizens United.
You’d be right to notice that the bulk of the push to expose donors is being done under the excuse of election integrity. America has some of the safest and most secure elections on the planet, but both Republicans and Democrats are willingly working to mislead Americans on that fact for ulterior motives. Republicans continue to claim the 2020 election was stolen, although there is literally zero evidence of that lie. But it helps them whip up the grassroots, raise millions of dollars, and excuse the fact that their growing nationalist populist ideas are vastly unpopular.
And Democrats have used similar lies, like Russiagate, to excuse their own losses, stir fear in the American public, whip up anger against their political opponents, and push for laws that would let them get their hands on donors so they could cancel them for participating in political causes they dislike.
It’s bad business all around.
If you stand for free speech at all you stand for it at all times. That means you especially stand up for the free speech of your political opponents, those you dislike, and even those who say things you abhor.
Hannah has worked with Americans for Prosperity on these and other issues.