Bipartisan Opposition Sinks Multi-Year Crusade to Violate Mainers’ Privacy

March 4, 2024 | Alex Baiocco

Threats to nonprofits’ right to engage in public policy debates while maintaining the privacy of their supporters continue to fail in 2024. In Maine, lawmakers recently voted to defeat anti-privacy legislation first introduced in 2023.

As People United for Privacy has warned, the harmful polices in Arizona’s recently-enacted Proposition 211 are appearing in proposals across the country, from Oklahoma to Oregon all the way to Maine. L.D. 1590, introduced by Senator Richard Bennett (R), would have brought the scourge of “original source” donor disclosure and top-funder disclaimer requirements to Maine policy discussions.

Original source donor disclosure requires groups to not only disclose their own contributors, but also their contributors’ contributors. Under this convoluted policy, nonprofits that have always protected the privacy of their supporters are forced to disclose the names and home addresses of those individuals to a group they have contributed to in order for the recipient group to include that information in its own reports. In addition to the multilayered privacy concerns, the recordkeeping requirements and administrative burdens alone are enough to keep many nonprofits from engaging in activity at the heart of the First Amendment’s protections.

Meanwhile, top-funder disclaimer requirements force nonprofits to list their top contributors within the communication itself. This is the most public and direct means of tying individual supporters to specific communications they may not be aware of or even support. Even worse, some top-funder disclaimer requirements, like those in Prop 211 and L.D. 1590, also require original source disclosure. As a result, a nonprofit supporter could find herself being named in a message by a group she has never supported.

Fortunately, members of the Maine Joint Committee on Veterans and Legal Affairs took the concerns of the nonprofit community seriously. Following the Committee’s initial support for L.D. 1590 in 2023, several Maine nonprofits submitted opposition testimony critical of the bill’s speech-chilling disclosure and recordkeeping requirements.

As Planned Parenthood of Northern New England warned, “the disclosures in LD 1590 subject [donors] to potential harassment and targeting. Those risks to privacy and safety have the very real consequence of chilling their speech in possible violation of the First Amendment.”

Maine Conservation Voters asked lawmakers, “Absent proven evidence of some truly enormous benefit that could be realized, why would we demand additional reporting, notification, and affirmative permissions for donations to organizations beyond what is currently required under federal and state law?”

Not to be outdone, the Attorney General’s Office expressed concern to lawmakers that the bill’s onerous disclosure mandates may be unconstitutional and would likely be challenged in court.

Upon hearing the nonprofit community’s concerns, the Committee scheduled the bill for reconsideration and ultimately decided to carry it over to the 2024 session. In January 2024, the Joint Committee voted 10-3 to issue an Ought Not to Pass report, effectively recommending to their colleagues that the bill should be rejected. In late February, the full Senate voted to accept the Committee’s recommendation in a 19-11 vote. Both Republicans and Democrats joined together to officially defeat the draconian bill.

As more state legislatures consider following the reprehensible example of Arizona Prop 211, Maine serves as a reminder that both the threat and the antidote to the threat can come from lawmakers in both parties. L.D. 1590’s defeat also demonstrates that vocal opposition from the nonprofit community is crucial to informing policymakers of the harmful impact of these policies on an array of causes.