A $10,000 Limit on Free Speech?

June 20, 2021 | PUFP Staff

Congressional Democrats keep claiming that they have a plan to end corruption in Washington, D.C., which they say has “paralyzed American politics” and “rigged the system against working people.” Without question, the majority of Americans agree on the need to prevent corruption in Washington. Unfortunately, instead of actually addressing corruption in government, the Democrats’ plan centers around imposing limits on our First Amendment rights, including free speech and freedom of association. To be clear, their proposed DISCLOSE Act will silence the voices of millions of Americans.

Introduced 13 times over the past decade, the “Democracy Is Strengthened by Casting Light On Spending in Elections Act” (DISCLOSE Act) dramatically expands the regulation of speech of both groups that engage in political speech and the individuals who support those groups through donations. In other words, groups and organizations that speak out about issues that impact the lives of those in their communities and spend $10,000 or more on what the bill’s sponsors define as “campaign disbursements” (this could include a mailer or an ad on social media) would be required to disclose to the government the names and home addresses of their top donors.

The same applies to individuals who donate $10,000 or more to any of these organizations – whether dedicated to public education, racial justice, environmental protection, or gun rights. Their personal information will be handed over to the government and added to a publicly searchable database simply because of their support for a cause they care about.

To some organizations and individuals, $10,000 is a significant amount of money; to many other groups that advocate for public policy issues on a daily basis, that dollar amount is miniscule. Regardless of whether a group, organization, or individual believes $10,000 is a significant amount of money, thresholds such as those contained in the DISCLOSE Act are a direct affront to every American’s First Amendment rights.

The Buckeye Institute is Targeted for Speaking Out Against Medicaid Expansion

In 2013, states across the U.S. had the option to expand their Medicaid programs under the Affordable Care Act. Many states were led to believe that expanding their Medicaid programs would help their budgets. In Ohio, the Buckeye Institute – an independent research and educational think tank – did the research and found the opposite to be true: expanding Medicaid would cost Ohioans more tax dollars while not improving the health outcomes of those enrolled in the program. The Buckeye Institute shared their findings with the Ohio General Assembly, which relied on Buckeye’s arguments rejecting Medicaid expansion to fight back.

Shortly after The Buckeye Institute shared their analysis with state lawmakers, they learned they would be audited by the Cincinnati office of the Internal Revenue Service. The audit notification came on the heels of widespread reporting and congressional investigations of wrongdoing by that very same IRS.

Donors to The Buckeye Institute feared that this audit was politically motivated retaliation against the group for their report opposing Medicaid expansion. These same donors expressed concern that, if their names appeared on Buckeye’s Schedule B or other records subject to disclosure in the IRS audit, they too would be targeted for retaliatory audits. The result? Numerous individuals immediately began opting to make smaller, and fully anonymous, cash donations—foregoing a donation receipt and thereby their tax deduction altogether—in order to avoid any potential retribution based upon their financial contributions to and association with the organization.

What Would Life Be Like Under the DISCLOSE Act?

Instead of addressing corruption, or empowering working people, the DISCLOSE Act will eliminate speech in the public square. Without an open debate in which all sides are allowed to participate equally and without fear of harassment or intimidation, politicians in D.C. will become more corrupt, more powerful and the voices of the American public will become silent. Under the DISCLOSE Act, there will be fewer voices discussing issues that matter to millions of people with a wide array of personal, political, and religious views. Nonprofit organizations such as The Buckeye Institute would have to consider whether to raise concerns about issues that impact the lives of millions or remain silent in order to avoid being forced to disclose the names and home addresses of their donors. Donors able to gift larger amounts would likely be less generous to ensure that their personal information remains private and they don’t end up being added to some government list for the world to see. Smaller donors also stand to lose out because the causes and organizations they support will be less able to keep communities informed about issues that impact them.

The amount an individual donates to a cause or an organization should not make them a target for harassment or intimidation. Nor should their constitutional rights of free speech and freedom of association be limited to $10,000. Organizations that do good work and provide their communities with information on important issues should not have to decide between fulfilling their mission or disclosing the names and home addresses of their donors to the government.

The $10,000 threshold for forced donor disclosure in the DISCLOSE Act is only the start. In time, expect that amount to be reduced again and again until all speech – except the speech of powerful politicians – is silenced.