Biden State of the Union Mangles History to Attack Associational Privacy

March 8, 2024 | Luke Wachob

In his State of the Union Address, President Joe Biden attacked “unlimited dark money” as a force that is “taking us back in time” to the era before the Civil Rights Movement. That would likely come as a shock to the movement’s leaders, who fought all the way to the Supreme Court to protect so-called “unlimited dark money.”

As Dr. Helen Knowles-Gardner of the Institute for Free Speech recently wrote for TIME, the NAACP’s legal battle with Alabama officials in the 1950’s spawned the most famous and important Supreme Court ruling protecting the privacy of donations to nonprofit groups:    

Alabama’s Assistant Attorney General Edmon L. Rinehart stood before the justices of the Supreme Court to defend his state’s efforts to oust the NAACP from his state and demand that the association turn over its membership lists. 

NAACP General Counsel Robert L. Carter, who later became a federal judge, contended that disclosing the names of the association’s members violated the First Amendment and the due process protections of the Fourteenth Amendment. He argued that disclosure would mean “possible harm, threats, and fears” reflective of the climate of “open hostility” to the NAACP and Black Americans more generally in the Heart of Dixie.… 

Much of the oral argument in Patterson was focused on procedural questions. However, when the justices finally turned to the constitutional issues it was clear they knew that Alabama was simply trying to kick the NAACP out of the state, permanently. Justice Felix Frankfurter, the most active questioner, said it well. Alabama sought to impose “a death sentence” on the civil rights organization. On June 30, 1958, the court unanimously ruled that Alabama’s actions were unconstitutional.

Of course, “dark money” wasn’t called “dark money” back then. That term is a modern invention, popularized over the last decade by politicians and activists seeking to force nonprofit groups to expose their members’ names and addresses any time they dare to speak about elected officials, Supreme Court nominees, pending legislation, or virtually anything else having to do with government or public policy. But “dark money” has no technical or official meaning. It is simply a pejorative term for groups that keep their members and donors private.

Today, everyone likes to imagine they would have been on the side of the NAACP during the Civil Rights Movement. But those who would force nonprofits to expose their supporters when working to influence government or change our laws are carrying on the legacy of Jim Crow leaders, not the brave Americans who opposed them.