How Free Speech in America Helps Protect Democracy Activists Around the World

October 18, 2022 | PUFP Staff

It’s National Free Speech Week in the United States. Even though Americans might not always see eye to eye, we still have much to celebrate thanks to our First Amendment right to disagree and debate important public policy issues. Unfortunately, in other parts of the world, many of the freedoms we take for granted are denied.

Today, People United for Privacy Foundation is releasing a new video telling the story of Dr. Yang Jianli, a scholar and democracy activist who understands the value of privacy, free speech, and democracy. His nonprofit organization, Citizen Power Initiatives for China, is based in the United States, and the group’s supporters include both Chinese and American citizens, some of whom have family in China. All of Dr. Yang’s supporters – regardless of where they live – depend on strong privacy protections in the United States to protect them from retaliation from the Chinese government as they fight for their freedom.

“I think the beauty of democracy is that we can stop government from obtaining such illegal power to censor, to surveil, to persecute the dissent,” explains Dr. Yang. “The privacy of donors – this issue is a life-or-death issue.”

As a participant in the Tiananmen Square student protests in 1989 who was later imprisoned in China for his activism, Dr. Yang understands the extreme threats facing those who stand up to oppressive regimes. The stories of his supporters, such as a Chinese businessman who was sentenced to eleven years in prison for donating to Dr. Yang’s group, are a powerful demonstration of the vital connection between privacy and free speech.

That connection has been key throughout American history as well. From the founding era to the civil rights movement to modern day, Americans have joined together with like-minded fellow citizens to advocate for change and challenge the status quo. The ability to join and support such groups privately is what allows all Americans – regardless of their beliefs – to freely exercise their First Amendment rights to speak, assemble, and petition the government.

It’s no surprise, then, that the right to privately support nonprofit causes is clearly established in our law. In fact, the Supreme Court has repeatedly struck down efforts by government to demand donor lists from nonprofit organizations, including the unanimous ruling in 1958’s NAACP v. Alabama and the recent 2021 decision in Americans for Prosperity Foundation v. Bonta. The decisions in those cases explain how easily First Amendment rights can be suppressed when government surveils citizens’ associations and beliefs.

The good news is that the policies we embrace at home can help encourage freedom and democracy abroad. The bad news is that our policies can also undermine these goals and put Americans – and their families and friends living in other counties – at risk of retaliation for their speech and beliefs.

Despite this harsh reality, some politicians seek to force nonprofits to publicly expose their supporters through legislation such as the DISCLOSE Act. On the state level, bills threatening the privacy of nonprofit members have already passed into law, and many more have been proposed and defeated.

The experience of Dr. Yang and his group’s supporters – and others who face serious threats of retaliation – should make policymakers reconsider. American elected officials should not support policies that enable anti-democratic foreign powers to target individuals for supporting pro-democracy movements based in the United States. Elected officials should always keep in mind that transparency is for government, privacy is for people.

“Our work would be unsustainable without the ability to shield our supporters. The same is true for many other important causes supported by nonprofits throughout the United States,” Dr. Yang urged in a July op-ed for Real Clear Policy.

As Dr. Yang explains in the video, the price of our liberties is eternal vigilance against those who would take them from us. Free Speech Week is a good time for all Americans to make that commitment.