More Bills Threatening Citizen Privacy Bite the Dust

February 23, 2023 | Luke Wachob

Recently, People United For Privacy warned about legislation in North Dakota that would put Americans at risk of harassment and retaliation for their beliefs. The bill (H.B. 1500) threatened to publicly expose Americans’ names and home addresses when supporting nonprofit causes in the state. Fortunately, on February 15, the measure was defeated in the North Dakota House of Representatives.

Nevertheless, the bill saw a troubling increase in support compared to previous years. Several House Republicans changed their positions on the bill after facing criticism of their voting records from a nonprofit group in the leadup to last year’s election. In a particularly ugly display of the motive behind H.B. 1500 and other similar proposals, Rep. Mike Schatz (R) admitted that mailers publicizing his vote against an education funding bill persuaded him to sponsor the speech-chilling measure.

“It’s a little different when it’s your name under the funny hat,” Rep. Schatz said in reference to the mailer’s cartoonish depiction of him. It is hard to think of a worse reason to support a bill than the hope that it may silence groups from criticizing elected leaders. That is especially true when the criticism is no mere allegation, but factually based on a legislator’s actual voting record.

Unfortunately, retaliatory measures like this one are all too common in state legislatures across the country following an election. Indeed, another similar measure sponsored by a Republican, S.B. 2312, also failed in the Senate in February. Much like H.B. 1500, that measure would have been devastating to the privacy of North Dakotans who support causes as well as the long-term viability of nonprofit organizations in the state.

Despite the self-interested uptick in support for H.B. 1500, the bill still failed after meeting stiff opposition from a majority of legislators as well as key government officials and a wide range of nonprofit organizations. One prominent voice to speak out against H.B. 1500 was North Dakota Secretary of State Michael Howe (R), who urged a “Do Not Pass” on the proposal and warned that it may be unconstitutional.

“Along with the many complexities this bill presents for reporting, and perhaps its unconstitutionality, the bill also gives the Secretary of State’s office a unique power to investigate possible violations with or without receiving a complaint,” Secretary Howe’s letter explained. He went on to note that the bill “may open the Secretary of State’s office to frivolous lawsuits” by permitting complaining parties to sue the Secretary of State for action or inaction on a complaint.

Representatives from two nonprofit organizations also testified in opposition to the bill at a hearing on January 30.

“When taken in its entirety, H.B. 1500 is obviously designed to do through legislation what anti-business forces could not do in the Court – limit the voice of business in our political process and” undermine recent Supreme Court rulings, noted Shane Goettle for the Brighter Future Alliance, the group whose mailers touched a nerve with some House Republicans.

“Privacy is required to protect the rights of North Dakotans, and all Americans, to speak freely and petition their government. These principles are what allow Americans to support their favorite charities, government watchdogs, community and religious organizations, without fear that those in power who disagree will punish or intimidate them – or that an online mob will try to get them fired,” explained Doug Kellogg, State Projects Director for Americans for Tax Reform. “The Supreme Court recently made it clear that privacy in charitable giving is required to exercise free speech in AFPF v. Bonta, because intimidation is an obvious side effect of disclosure that would render the right to speech mute.”

People United for Privacy thanks all those who spoke out against and opposed this threat to citizen privacy and free speech. The ability to join and support nonprofit causes without government surveillance is essential to the First Amendment. We continue to monitor other dangerous bills in North Dakota and across the country that put this right at risk.