“I Need to Know Who My Enemies Are” says North Dakota Republican Championing Anti-Privacy Bill

February 10, 2023 | Luke Wachob

Another day, another elected official admitting that the crusade against so-called “dark money” is really about shutting up their critics.

In North Dakota, a bill that would force many nonprofits to reveal their supporters’ names and home addresses died in 2021 after every Republican in the House voted against it. That changed when a group called the Brighter Future Alliance started criticizing the voting records of some of those very same Republicans.

“Until it happens to you, you think, well, it’s not an issue. It’s a little different when it’s your name under the funny hat,” said Republican Rep. Mike Schatz.

That statement was no metaphor. According to an article in InForum, the lawmaker was upset by a mailer that “depicted Schatz wearing on his head a metal bowl with a darkened lightbulb attached to it. Scribbled on the bowl in elementary handwriting was the word ‘Thinker.’”

The mailer criticized Schatz for voting against an education funding bill, saying he had “put our children’s future at risk.” That’s a serious charge, and combined with the comical image, it’s no surprise Rep. Schatz wasn’t happy to see it. But it’s also a classic example of the sort of political speech that has long been practiced by nonprofits. Anyone in elected office should know their policy positions are going to be questioned from time to time, and it might not always be done on terms they consider to be friendly.

To Schatz, however, the mailer criticizing his position on education policy was enough to change his whole perspective on personal privacy rights. After opposing legislation to expand the state’s disclosure laws for nonprofit groups just two years ago, Schatz is now partnering with Democratic Rep. Karla Rose Hanson to sponsor an updated version of the bill, H.B. 1500. He’s not the only one in his party turning against personal privacy after facing a little criticism, either.

“I need to know who my enemies are,” explained Republican Senator Jeff Magrum, who also faced critical mailers from the Brighter Future Alliance. Similar to Schatz, Senator Magrum sponsored legislation – S.B. 2312 – to force more groups to expose their members when speaking about government. Fortunately for nonprofits and their supporters, Magrum’s peers voted unanimously to defeat his bill in committee.

These bills endanger privacy and free speech by exposing supporters of social causes to potential harassment and intimidation. That makes citizens afraid to support and engage with advocacy groups, it makes nonprofits afraid to speak out about public policy issues being considered by the legislature, and it makes elected officials less accountable for their actions. This is no mere side effect of the legislation. Oftentimes, as with the failed DISCLOSE Act in Congress, these laws are purposefully designed to maximize the “deterrent effect” – also known as “chill” – on speech that criticizes government leaders.

People United for Privacy fights to protect the ability of all Americans – regardless of their beliefs – to support the causes of their choice privately. That’s why we’ve encouraged 14 states to adopt new legal protections to keep your nonprofit giving history safe from political surveillance. North Dakota is just the latest example of how the rhetoric of “dark money” has been exploited and abused to undermine this fundamental American right.

Make no mistake: privacy has a place in politics, and it’s an important one. Newspapers don’t reveal their confidential sources, voters cast their ballots in private booths, and yes, nonprofits raise support and urge government action while shielding the privacy of their members.

While candidates for office and campaign groups formed to support or oppose their election can be required to report their major donors, these laws must be carefully crafted to ensure that Americans retain their constitutional rights to join together with fellow citizens privately in support of a cause. A few mailers criticizing an elected official for their voting record is no reason to turn our backs on the proud American tradition – and constitutionally protected right – of private giving to charities and social causes.

To borrow a phrase: Until your name and giving history is exposed, you might think it’s not a big issue. But it’s a little different when it’s your donation – and your address – being exposed to the world just because an elected official disagrees with you.

Let us hope our elected officials develop thick enough skin to tolerate criticism without turning against privacy and free speech.