Anonymous Speech Must Be Protected

May 18, 2021

Since the founding of this great nation, anonymous speech has allowed even the most vulnerable of voices to participate in debate in the public square. Our Founding Fathers used pseudonyms to help ensure that readers focused on the arguments presented instead of the personality of the author. Those with differing views relied on anonymous speech for the very same reason: to be able to engage the broader public in the debate. Both sides also relied on anonymous speech to protect themselves and their families from harassment or retribution. As a hallmark of our nation, anonymous speech must be protected.

Adopted nearly 230 years ago, the First Amendment protects our rights to free speech and freedom of association. While many individuals choose to speak on their own behalf and to voice their views publicly, others decide to donate to causes or organizations whose voice is stronger and better able to represent their views on any number of topics. Regardless of whether someone chooses to speak out individually or to rely on a larger chorus to share their views, their freedom of speech and association are protected under the First Amendment. Yet in today’s society, countless politicians and activists seek to eliminate these important rights, to silence those with different views.

These rights were reaffirmed in the 1958 landmark case National Association for the Advancement of Colored People v. Alabama. Under the guise of a lawsuit that challenged the NAACP for violation of a state statute, Alabama Attorney General John Patterson tried to force the NAACP to report the names and addresses of their supporters. Aware that their members would be targeted for harassment, intimidation, and even violence, the NAACP fought the state all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and won. In an opinion delivered by Justice John Marshall Harlan II, he wrote: “It is hardly a novel perception that compelled disclosure of affiliation with groups engaged in advocacy may constitute as effective a restrain on freedom of association as the forms of governmental action in the cases above were thought likely to produce upon the particular constitutional rights there involved.”

While NAACP v. Alabama did help to discourage attacks on donor privacy for many years, today there is a growing push for legislation – at all levels of government – to force charities and nonprofit organizations to disclose the names and home addresses of their donors, regardless of how large or small an individual’s gift is. Those advancing these policies claim they will “improve transparency,” “reduce corruption,” or that it is simply “good government.” In reality, lawmakers advancing policies to require charities and other nonprofits to disclose the names and home addresses of their donors to the government have the same idea that Alabama Attorney General Patterson had in the 1950s: to harass, intimidate, and silence those who disagree with them.

Legislation that forces charities and nonprofit organizations to disclose the name and home addresses of their donors to the government is a serious threat against all Americans, regardless of their political views. Whether someone supports the American Civil Liberties Union, Sierra Club, National Rifle Association, or the Salvation Army, a donation of an individual’s time, talent, or money is a private matter and should not be exploited for political, professional, or individual gain.

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