Donor Disclosure Aids Extremists, Punishes Law-Abiding Americans

October 18, 2021 | PUFP Staff

Almost daily, there are headlines about far-right and far-left groups clashing on an array of highly charged and divisive issues. The increase in violence attributable to extremist groups is a growing concern for many Americans as the conflicts between some groups threaten the safety and well-being of communities nationwide.

Illegal activities carried out by extremists or foreign actors only serve to sow divide within our communities and to undermine our democracy. Yet, instead of putting forth real solutions that would address extremism or combat foreign interference, Congressional Democrats are pushing legislation that would require charitable and nonprofit organizations to disclose the names and home addresses of their donors to the government. These “solutions,” known as the DISCLOSE Act and Honest Ads Act, do nothing to address extremism or foreign interference. Instead, both bills work to silence millions of American voices by stripping them of their First Amendment rights.

Not Your Local YMCA or Salvation Army

Extremist groups are typically loosely organized networks of individuals who are aligned by ideology. Unlike charitable and nonprofit organizations that are registered with and recognized by the Internal Revenue Service, most of these networks that operate on the extreme fringes of politics and society are not legally organized, don’t have taxpayer identification numbers, donors can’t deduct their contributions, and they are not recognized 501(c) entities. In fact, most of these groups shudder at accepting donations from anyone outside their circle and instead rely on members to use their personal resources to fulfill their missions.

Members of extremist groups also represent a very small segment of the population. For example, the Ku Klux Klan is currently estimated to have less than 10,000 members nationwide. While the existence of just one member of the KKK is problematic, the reality is that donor disclosure laws will target a much larger population that supports the 1.5 million legally recognized charities and nonprofits in the United States. Combined, these organizations have hundreds of millions of members who support them and their diverse missions, and whose ability – and right – to exercise their First Amendment rights should be protected.

It is absurd for politicians to suggest that these networks of Americans who hold extreme views – and who openly and proudly engage in violence – could simply be controlled with disclosure laws. To use the chaos caused by extremist or fringe groups as justification to force legitimate nonprofit and charitable organizations doing good work to disclose the millions of names and home addresses of their donors to the government is bad policy. It’s also a direct affront to Americans’ First Amendment rights to free speech and freedom of association.

Foreign Bots and Trolls Are Not Deterred by Donor Disclosure Laws

The 2016 election cycle saw Russian-affiliated groups utilize stolen American identities to purchase political and issue ads online. Requiring charities to disclose their donor lists would not prevent those foreign actors from posting political content on social media and relying on other users or “bots” to spread it, and it would not prevent more significant means of foreign meddling, such as the hacking and leaking of campaign e-mails.

Does anyone honestly believe that bad foreign actors determined to undermine democracy and sow division in the United States will be deterred by an expansion of electioneering laws?

Donor Disclosure Will Not Solve Extremism or Foreign Interference

Making donors’ names and home addresses public will not inhibit bad actors who really want to influence elections. Donor disclosure laws are also very dangerous as they provide extremist groups with publicly accessible lists that they can use to target and “de-platform” individuals whose views differ from theirs.

The landmark NAACP v Alabama case of 1958 is a prime example of extremists wanting to know who supported the NAACP in order to harass, intimidate, and ultimately silence them. Fortunately, the United States Supreme Court ruled in favor of the NAACP, protecting their members’ privacy.

Targeting a significantly larger population of law-abiding Americans who donate to legitimate charities and nonprofit organizations is not a solution to address extremism or foreign interference. Americans who donate to nonprofits as a way to express their First Amendment rights should be able to do so without fear that their personal information will be available in a searchable government database that makes it easy for anyone to target and harass them for their beliefs.

To effectively root out extremism or end foreign interference, Congress needs to put forth solutions that would actually solve those problems instead of stripping Americans of their rights to free speech and freedom of association.