Citizen privacy is an issue that unites Americans

March 15, 2021

Privately supporting causes, and the organizations advancing those causes, is a fundamental freedom that is protected by the First Amendment.

Our Founding Fathers used pen names to encourage independence from England. Nearly 200 years later, the U.S. Supreme Court blocked the state of Alabama from demanding the supporter list of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, citing concerns about retribution against the group’s members and financial backers. These are just two of many instances in American history where privacy proved essential to the protection of free speech. This protection is just as relevant in today’s hyper-polarized atmosphere.

People United for Privacy Foundation (PUFPF) has joined a broad coalition of groups that are asking the Supreme Court to overturn California’s requirement that nonprofit organizations disclose their IRS Form 990 Schedule B forms. These forms contain private, sensitive information including the names and addresses of an organization’s major supporters. The State of California claims that it keeps this information confidential, but numerous examples of private information being published on a public website demonstrate that the state does not have the ability to maintain sufficient control over a donor’s personal information.

In an amicus brief filed earlier this month, PUFPF joined five organizations that are focused on protecting individual privacy and freedom of speech in urging the Court to reverse the Ninth Circuit’s decision and “affirm that because requirements to disclose an association’s membership or donor lists impose significant First Amendment burdens, they are subject to exacting judicial scrutiny and generally must be narrowly tailored to further a compelling government interest.” The other groups joining this brief are the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Freedom to Read Foundation, National Coalition Against Censorship, Woodhull Freedom Foundation, and Defending Rights & Dissent.

The amici on this brief are a small representation of the diverse list of organizations that support the challenge to California’s disclosure requirement. Over 280 groups signed 43 amicus briefs in support of the petitioners, representing a wide range of causes and political preferences that includes progressive advocacy groups, conservative think tanks, religious organizations, trade associations, animal and human welfare advocates, educational institutions, community services, and arts and culture organizations.

Americans strongly believe nonprofits play an important role with issue advocacy and public education. In a survey recently conducted for PUFPF, over 2/3 of respondents said that they believe nonprofits have a key role in encouraging free speech and the free exchange of ideas and helping to keep voters informed about issues. Nine out of ten voters say the right to privacy is absolutely essential or very important, and seven out of ten voters believe that no one has a right to know about someone’s donations to non-political organizations. Directly related to the case currently before the Supreme Court, only 14% of voters trust the government to safely store their information.

Our country may seem as divided as we’ve ever been, but one thing Americans can agree on is the importance of defending our right to engage in free speech and to debate issues that we may disagree on, as well as the need to protect citizen privacy and the right to exercise First Amendment rights privately.

The cases are Americans for Prosperity Foundation v. Becerra and Thomas More Law Center v. Becerra. To read People United for Privacy Foundation’s brief, click here.

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