Debunking Rolling Stone’s Attack on Charities in RFK Jr. Anti-Vax Article

October 26, 2023 | Luke Wachob

Americans have a First Amendment right to support causes they believe in privately. That’s true whether the media likes those causes or not.

Rolling Stone became the most recent outlet to rage against this constitutional principle in an article accusing American charities of “bankrolling” Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s anti-vaccine advocacy. Unsurprisingly, it missed the mark.

The authors cherry-pick donations to specific organizations in order to attack fundamental privacy and free speech rights that protect all Americans. They misconstrue the role of “donor-advised funds” (DAFs) in assisting large donors with their gifts. And they blame charities and Republican justices for longstanding First Amendment protections for anonymous speech.

Let’s correct the record.

  1.   Charities have the right to keep their donors private – whether they give through donor-advised funds (DAFs) or not.

Rolling Stone attempts to paint donor-advised funds (DAFs) as a shady vehicle used by big donors to dodge public scrutiny of their support for controversial causes. It claims DAFs are popular because they allow “wealthy individuals and foundations to distribute cash — and remain under the radar.”

“‘Some speculate that DAFs are facilitating contributions to controversial organizations that might not otherwise occur,’ says Roger Colinvaux, a professor of law at the Catholic University of America. ‘DAFs provide a layer of anonymity between donor and recipient. This is the very nature of a DAF as an intermediary organization.’”

This ignores the fact that donors can and do make anonymous gifts to charities all the time without using any kind of donor-advised fund. Charities in the United States are not required to publicly reveal their donors. In fact, they usually consider it their responsibility to ensure their donors’ privacy is protected. If someone wants to give privately, they can. No DAF required.

Why use a DAF, then? The key advantage is that the donor does not have to personally vet every organization they might consider contributing to. Instead, they tell a trustee how they want their funds to be used. The trustee then does the grunt work of figuring out which charities are best suited to the donor’s interests. Such an arrangement is especially attractive to large donors who make many gifts each year. DAFs are used by donors of all beliefs to contribute to causes of all kinds.

  1.   The First Amendment prohibits the government from banning speech it deems to be “false” – and for good reason.

As if attacking privacy were not enough, Rolling Stone next goes to war with free speech.

“Today, individuals with disposable income can drop cash and help spread half truths, misinformation, or outright lies all while remaining anonymous, thus facing no consequences for disseminating the equivalent of malware throughout society’s mainframe,” the authors huff. They blame “Republican-appointed justices dominating the bench since the 1970s” for this state of affairs.

Setting aside any particular claims or organizations, the existence of lies and half-truths is not a new development. Nor is it a product of charitable giving or the tax code that governs such donations. It’s a simple result of the messy nature of free speech and a strong First Amendment.

Our Constitution rightly prohibits the government from shutting down speech it deems to be false, because the government is not always correct, fair, or honest in its determinations about what is true. Freedom of speech must involve at least some skepticism of authority. It must give people the room to err in their statements and beliefs.

The fact that donors can stay private is beside the point. Anonymous speech is also protected by our Constitution and, in fact, has a long and storied tradition in our history. Moreover, many of the strongest Supreme Court precedents for privacy and free speech came not from today’s conservative justices, but from yesterday’s liberals. The decision protecting the right to give privately to nonprofits under the First Amendment was issued in 1958 by the liberal Warren Court – and it was unanimous. Rolling Stone completely omits this history from its article.

Journalistic outlets should have a better appreciation for the First Amendment and privacy protections that they and their sources also rely on. At a minimum, they should understand that these principles arise from our Constitution and not merely from our charities or the tax code.

  1.   Privacy is key for Americans on all sides of controversial social and political issues. 

The article selectively focuses on anti-vaccine organizations and other controversial groups that Rolling Stone readers are expected to oppose. For instance, it quotes a law professor who claims that DAFs are commonly used to fund “hate groups” and “Covid-misinformation operations.” But what about causes that are supported by Rolling Stone readers?

The Tides Foundation manages thousands of DAFs that collectively disperse hundreds of millions of dollars to liberal and progressive causes. The authors seem to pine for a world in which donors to anti-vax and other groups are publicly exposed and directly confronted by progressive forces. But they fail to consider the other side of that coin: Groups that support vaccines and other issues favored by progressives would have to expose their donors as well.

This race-to-the-bottom approach puts every American who donates to a cause at risk of harassment or worse at the hands of the other side’s most extreme fringe. That is no way for society to function. We cannot replace debate and persuasion with intimidation and brute force. No matter how vigorously you disagree with a group’s views, calling for nonprofits to expose their donors would be disastrous for personal privacy and free speech.

Donor-advised funds and charitable giving are not nefarious forces to be shunned from our society. They are vehicles for all Americans to join together in support of their shared values, work to benefit their communities, and participate in social debates about government policy and other public issues. The right to privacy when exercising these rights is important for people of all beliefs and backgrounds, especially those who seek to challenge the status quo.

Rather than demonize private giving to charities and nonprofits, we should encourage more Americans to get involved and commit to answering speech we oppose with counterarguments, not harassment campaigns.