Progressive Activists Call for Privacy for Politicians, Exposure for Citizens

February 21, 2024 | Brian Hawkins

PUFP has long embraced the maxim, coined by former Federal Election Commission Chairman Bradley A. Smith, that transparency is for government, privacy is for people. But the Brennan Center for Justice is flipping that viewpoint on its head in a new report advocating for laws shielding sensitive information about elected officeholders, such as their home address, from public view.

The bulk of the report, “Intimidation of State and Local Officeholders,” concerns the threat of violence from political extremists to state and local officeholders. Brennan cites violent attacks against public officials and their families, such as the shooting targeting Republican Members of Congress, which seriously wounded Rep. Steve Scalise, and the burglary at former Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s private residence in which her husband was held hostage. The report also tracks lesser types of abuse to officeholders in the form of threats, harassment, and even mere insults. To protect public officials from these threats, Brennan argues that certain personal information about officeholders should be shielded from public view, including their address, with some exceptions.

While advocating for personal privacy protections for public officials, the Brennan Center is an enthusiastic supporter of Senator Sheldon Whitehouse’s DISCLOSE Act, which would publish the names and addresses of Americans who donate to nonprofit causes. The Brennan Center is correct to highlight the growing threat of political violence in today’s world, but private citizens who donate to nonprofit organizations also risk attacks, threats, and harassment for their giving and beliefs. Instead of protecting them, the Brennan Center advocates for a world where Americans who speak out about government power are punished with disclosure, while politicians who wield government power are rewarded with secrecy.

The progressive group regularly evokes (and overstates) the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s concurrence in Doe v. Reed to shame opponents of nonprofit donor disclosure. In Doe v. Reed, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that disclosure of signatories for a ballot petition does not violate the Petition Clause of the First Amendment. In his concurrence, Justice Scalia argued that identifying supporters of political causes is an act of civic courage, writing:

Requiring people to stand up in public for their political acts fosters civic courage, without which democracy is doomed. For my part, I do not look forward to a society which, thanks to the Supreme Court, campaigns anonymously . . . hidden from public scrutiny and protected from the accountability of criticism. This does not resemble the Home of the Brave.

Considering the Brennan Center’s repeated calls for “civic courage” from Americans who donate to like-minded organizations, it is curious that the organization now favors expanded privacy protections for those who wield actual government power. We encourage Brennan to extend their sympathies to Americans not in the government, including donors and members of nonprofit organizations.

PUFP has long noted the threats of violence faced by nonprofit donors. In the aftermath of Dobbs v. Jackson, which overturned Roe v. Wade, pregnancy clinics offering women an alternative to abortion faced a series of arson attacks across the country. In Longmont, Colorado, one such clinic was littered with graffiti writing, “if abortions aren’t safe, neither are you.” Compounding the threat, an antifa-affiliated group, shared a map of pro-life crisis pregnancy centers on social media with threatening messages.

In 2015, an anti-abortion extremist killed three people at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs. In courtroom appearances after the shooting, the shooter showed no remorse for his actions, proclaiming himself, “a warrior for the babies.”

The record is undeniable: Nonprofits and their supporters face the same threats of harassment, violence, and intimidation that the Brennan Center cites as a justification to shield the personal information of public officials. Private citizens engaging in political speech deserve the same privacy protections.

Let’s hope this latest report represents a reversal by Brennan and other supporters of the DISCLOSE Act. Otherwise, they should update their motto to, “privacy is for government, ‘transparency’ is for people.”