How the DISCLOSE Act Chills Speech

June 14, 2021

Over the past decade, Congressional Democrats have introduced 13 iterations of the “Democracy Is Strengthened by Casting Light On Spending in Elections Act.” Also known as the DISCLOSE ACT, sponsors of this complex yet vague legislation claim that it would “increase transparency” and “end corruption” in America’s elections. The bill’s sponsors also purport that the DISCLOSE Act would “put the power back in the hands of the American people.”

Politicians and activists pushing this “enhanced disclosure” legislation have one goal: to permanently silence those who disagree with them and their policies. By micromanaging what political speech is allowed and when it is allowed, by requiring an intense amount of reporting by groups that communicate about public policy, and by forcing groups to disclose the names and home addresses of their donors, the DISCLOSE Act in effect would deter both individuals and groups across the political spectrum from engaging in speech that pertains to an issue or elected official. In other words, the DISCLOSE Act seeks to violate Americans’ rights to free speech and freedom of association.

Women’s Suffrage Movement

To mobilize millions of women across the country in the fight for the women’s voting rights, the National American Women’s Suffrage Association (NAWSA) depended on charitable gifts from Americans who believed in the cause of equality and advancement for females. Several wives of business tycoons bankrolled the suffrage movement. Some chose to do that publicly, while others kept their gifts quiet because suffragists faced significant opposition at the time. Following the death of her husband, Margaret Olivia Sage inherited $75 million which she gave to a variety of causes, many of which she supported publicly. However, she insisted on keeping her gifts to suffrage organizations secret. She is one of many women whose gifts funded the organizers and operations that were necessary to win the right for women to vote.

Under the DISCLOSE Act, the outcome for women’s suffrage could have been very different. Those in power who didn’t want women to vote could have targeted and harassed suffrage supporters such as Margaret Olivia Sage to the point they no longer donated to pro-suffrage groups. Without the resources to share their side of the debate – to engage in free speech and freedom of association – groups like NASWA and their members would have been silenced, and women would remain locked out of the political process.

DISCLOSE Act of 2021

In addition to being included as a provision in H.R. 1, “The For the People Act,” a stand-alone version of the DISCLOSE Act was once again introduced this year in both chambers of Congress. As with all previous versions of the bill, the goal is the same: to silence the other side of the debate by imposing more regulations on political speech, by requiring more reporting by groups that speak on issues affecting the general public, and by forcing groups to disclose the names and home addresses of their donors to the government.

Instead of putting power back into the hands of the people, the DISCLOSE Act would eliminate voices from public debate about issues that matter to us, our families, and our communities. As a result, the DISCLOSE Act clears the way for those holding office to make the decisions for us and without our input. Issues that impact a large swath of the American public should be debated far and wide, and with as many voices as possible contributing to the discussion. This is even more critical when the issue is controversial, such as women’s right to vote in the 1800s and early 1900s. When groups, and the individuals that support them, seek changes that are outside of the mainstream, they need privacy protections to be able to speak freely and without fear of retaliation.

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