Alabama Legislature Unanimously Passes Personal Privacy Protections

May 16, 2023 | Luke Wachob

Less than a week after Indiana became the 16th state to pass the Personal Privacy Protection Act (PPPA), Alabama joined the trend when Governor Kay Ivey signed Senate Bill 59 on May 9. The bill has become law in three additional states this year – Kentucky, Indiana, and Alabama – and 17 overall.

The PPPA protects Americans against unlawful collection and disclosure of their support for nonprofits by state agencies and imposes penalties on government officials who recklessly leak such personal information to the public. In so doing, the legislation codifies the Supreme Court’s 2021 decision in Americans for Prosperity Foundation v. Bonta. For more than six decades, courts have repeatedly recognized that the First Amendment protects the right to give privately to nonprofits.

S.B. 59 was sponsored by longtime Alabama Democratic Senator Rodger Smitherman and passed both the 35-member Senate and 105-member House unanimously. While the PPPA has received unanimous support in various chambers over the years, this is the first time the measure has passed a legislative body without a single ‘No’ vote. S.B. 59 is also the first PPPA bill sponsored by a Democrat to become law, although versions of the PPPA in other states have been signed into law by Democratic governors, been co-sponsored by Democratic lawmakers, and passed Democratic-controlled legislative chambers.

“I think that it’s necessary to make sure peoples’ information is not disseminated to any and everybody where it is not necessary,” Smitherman explained to the Alabama Political Reporter in April.

The ACLU of Alabama spotlighted S.B. 59 as one of the most significant wins of the legislative session. “This bill prohibits a public agency from requiring any person or nonprofit organization to provide a public agency with personal information about their membership list. The First Amendment safeguards our right to protect this information and Alabamians’ right to align with organizations representing their values and priorities,” wrote Dillon Nettles, the group’s Policy and Advocacy Director.

Alabama’s passage of the PPPA is a particular milestone in light of the state’s regrettable role in NAACP v. Alabama, the 1958 Supreme Court ruling recognizing a First Amendment right to privately support a nonprofit organization. In that case, Alabama state officials sought to force the NAACP to turn over a list of its supporters in the state. Fearing retaliation against the group’s members at the height of the civil rights movement, the Court unanimously decided that the NAACP – and other nonprofits – did not have to comply with such invasive demands.

Despite this strong ruling and others reinforcing it, state laws and governments across the country have continued to put nonprofit donor privacy at risk. In the 2010s, California’s Attorney General began demanding that groups reveal their donors to state bureaucrats in order to register and fundraise as a nonprofit in the state, in direct violation of NAACP v. Alabama. Once again, the matter reached the Supreme Court, and once again the Court came down emphatically on the side of privacy in AFPF v. Bonta.

Since the Court’s ruling striking down California’s demand, numerous states have passed new privacy protections or reviewed their existing laws for potentially unconstitutional or outdated statutes. Congress has also explored ways to reinvigorate privacy and free speech, including through the American Confidence in Elections (ACE) Act, legislation that includes similar donor privacy protections and that recently received a hearing in the Committee on House Administration on May 11.

Sixty-five years after NAACP v. Alabama, it’s heartening to see the Yellowhammer State pass proactive protections for personal privacy and bring Alabama law in line with the Supreme Court’s rulings. People United for Privacy Foundation wishes to thank Governor Ivey, Senator Smitherman, Representative Danny Garrett, and all the Alabama legislators who voted to pass Senate Bill 59 and protect their constituents’ First Amendment rights to privately support nonprofit causes doing good work throughout their state.