Violating the Privacy of Americans Won’t Fix Our Broken System

August 23, 2021 | PUFP Staff

In response to the growing frustration that Americans have with government corruption, politicians at both the state and federal levels have introduced proposals and legislation meant to “increase transparency” or “root out corruption” by requiring “public disclosure.” A number of these superficial initiatives, such as the DISCLOSE Act, include forcing nonprofits and other charitable organizations to disclose the names and home addresses of individuals who donate to their causes, putting that information into a searchable government database.

Politicians claim this information is necessary so that everyday Americans can know who is “buying” political candidates and corrupting our government. In reality, politicians and activists are using this information to build target lists of individuals whose views and opinions differ from theirs in order to seek them out, harass them for their beliefs, and ultimately silence millions of voices from participating in public debate. Requiring charities and causes to disclose their donors in the name of “transparency” is nothing short of a masqueraded approach to eliminating American’s rights to free speech and freedom of association.

$100 Gets Your Name on a Government List … Forever

Lawmakers pushing for donor disclosure are quick to cite examples of billionaires pouring millions of dollars into organizations as a means to influence government. But this isn’t about billionaires, who almost always will be exposed for their beliefs regardless of donor disclosure requirements and who have the resources to protect themselves against subsequent attacks. This is about activists and politicians who want to silence everyday Americans who disagree with them and their policies by canceling our First Amendment rights. These politicians want to reduce or eliminate the ability of the average American to debate or question their public policy proposals.

In Delaware, a law expanding the state’s definition of “electioneering communication” was passed, and as a result, required any organization that mentions the name of a candidate – even if not advocating for or against the candidate – to disclose the names of all donors who gave $100 total over the previous four years. Delaware Strong Families, a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization dedicated to rebuilding “a culture of marriage, family, and freedom and raise up the next generation of leaders,” published a neutral voter guide that included the names of candidates and their public positions on various issues. This voter guide was deemed an “electioneering communication” in Delaware, forcing Delaware Strong Families to disclose its donors.

In the United States, most charities and causes are supported by local donors who give smaller gifts. On average, households donate around $2,500 a year to charitable organizations doing good work in communities across the country. Forcing charitable organizations and nonprofits to disclose their donors to the government will do nothing to address government corruption and instead will silence the voices of millions of Americans who are no longer willing to donate $100 a year to a cause they care about for fear of harassment and intimidation.

Criminalizing Charitable Donations Isn’t the Solution

Politicians want Americans to believe that disclosure is about preventing influence in politics. It’s not. The amount an individual donates to a cause they believe in or to a charity they support should not automatically imply that they are seeking to “buy” politicians or to “gain political favor.” And really, how much favor can a $25 or even $10,000 donation buy? Unfortunately, the reality is that there will always be a small number of individuals with the resources to effect policy, and forcing charitable and nonprofit organizations to disclose the names and home addresses of all their donors to the government for inclusion in a public database is not going to solve corruption.

And while some in Congress would have you believe they are only targeting wealthier donors, legislative proposals like the DISCLOSE Act, which includes a $10,000 threshold for reporting individual donors to the government, is the beginning to the end of free speech and freedom of association. In time, the threshold will be reduced to smaller and smaller amounts – like in Delaware – until all speech is chilled.

Americans are a generous people and legislative initiatives that require causes and charities to disclose the names and home addresses of their donors to the government is not a slippery slope, it’s a cliff. Criminalizing charitable donations to nonprofit organizations that are working to help those in need or to provide research on a wide array of public policy issues will do nothing to solve government corruption. What it will do is erode our First Amendment rights.