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 (NAACP), citing concerns about retribution against the group’s members and financial backers. Private giving is part of our nation’s DNA.
Nationwide there is a push for speech-chilling laws that mandate disclosure of the names and addresses of individuals who have donated to nonprofit groups. The reason why activists want to see private information about donations to nonprofit organizations is simple: they want to be able to target individuals for their personal beliefs.
Although donors might not experience the type of intense dangers civil rights advocates faced in the mid-20th century, people with controversial views still face threats that were originally identified in the Supreme Court’s NAACP v. Alabama ruling such as “economic reprisal, loss of employment, threat of physical coercion, and other manifestations of public hostility.”
During the fight for Civil Rights for African Americans, the state of Alabama tried to force the NAACP to report the names and addresses of their supporters to the government. The NAACP knew that if their membership list was made public, those people would be targeted for harassment, intimidation, and even violence. So, they fought all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and won. The Supreme Court said that donations to private organizations like the NAACP — even if they take a position on political issues — can remain private so that people’s safety was protected.
The Supreme Court’s decision was essential to efforts by the NAACP to end segregation in the South. Free speech and freedom of association were crucial components in the ultimate success of the civil rights movement.
Today, donor privacy is still under attack
Sixty years later, lawmakers in nearly 30 states have considered bills or regulations that would force causes and charities to report the names and addresses of their supporters to the government. In addition to threatening the privacy of ordinary Americans simply because they support a cause they believe in, these sorts of proposals are reckless, as they would lead to the names and addresses of donors becoming public and potentially putting people’s safety at risk.
Just as in 1958, we believe these proposals violate the fundamental principles enshrined in the First Amendment: freedom of speech and the right to freely associate with people who share our beliefs without the government looking over our shoulders and reporting that information to the wider world.
The need for donor privacy is even more important with the internet making it easy to identify lists of donors, which could easily lead to harassment or intimidation. While many of today’s issues don’t have the same stakes at play as the civil rights movement, there continue to be real life examples of people being harassed online and in person – and even losing jobs – because of their beliefs.
We shouldn’t adopt policies that discourage people from participating in American life and supporting causes and charities they care about. We must protect the resources organizations need to make their voices heard. We must continue to protect individual privacy.
QUESTIONS TO ASK ABOUT DONOR DISCLOSURE PROPOSALS
1) Sixty years after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision, groups today do not experience the intense dangers that civil rights advocates faced in the mid-20th century. However, people with controversial views still face threats identified in the Court’s ruling. Without donor privacy protections in place, how can citizens defend themselves from being targeted at work, home or otherwise exposed to harm by people who disagree with the causes they support?
2) In this era of instant internet access, Twitter mobs, online bullying, and a charged and highly partisan political atmosphere, wouldn’t compulsory disclosure have a chilling effect on free speech? Do you believe individuals should be subject to shame campaigns, threats and intimidation for participating in public debate?
3) When we consider our own privacy, we recognize its value. Yet when it comes to other people’s privacy, many people reflexively feel that they have a ‘right to know’. Why?
4) 73% of registered voters agree the government has no right to know what groups or causes they support. So why do lawmakers think it’s important to require causes and charities to report the names and addresses of their supporters to a government agency to be posted in an online database that will be available for anyone to see?
5) Should people be fired or have their place of employment boycotted for the causes, organizations, or charities they support and donate to?
Contact us for more information or interview requests
- Privacy as a Philanthropic Pillar – Philanthropy Roundtable
- Supreme Court opinion on NAACP v. Alabama – Justia
- Three Myths About Disclosure – Institute for Free Speech
- Privacy and The Right To Advocate: Remembering NAACP v. Alabama and Its First Amendment Legacy On The 60th Anniversary Of The Case – Goldwater Institute
- NAACP v. Alabama after 60 Years: Should Associational Privacy Still Be Protected by the Constitution? (video) – CATO Institute