Virginia Holds Firm on Personal Privacy

March 27, 2023 | Luke Wachob

Virginia continues to be a hotbed of activity for defenders of free speech and personal privacy. After taking significant strides to improve its laws last year through the passage of the Personal Privacy Protection Act, the 2023 legislative session saw lawmakers once again toy with the idea of massively expanding regulations for political speech by nonprofit advocacy groups and the business community. Fortunately, these proposals did not become law, and the General Assembly adjourned for the year on February 25.

The most significant threat came from S.B. 854 (and its companion in the House of Delegates, H.B. 1551), a bill that would have forced nonprofits to curtail their advocacy or expose their supporters to potential harassment and retaliation. The legislation altered definitions in state law to allow campaign finance disclaimers to be required on ads that neither support nor oppose candidates, but merely mention them in the lead-up to an election. These so-called “electioneering communications” laws go far beyond regulating groups that seek to influence elections and intentionally harm nonprofits that wish to speak to the public about elected officials’ stances on policy issues.

Under S.B. 854, sponsored by Democratic Senator Barbara Favola, nonprofits that make “electioneering communications” would be forced to publish the names of their top three donors on the face of their messages. This isn’t the first time Virginia legislators have proposed such a law, and it won’t be the last. That’s a shame, because Americans who have their names and support for advocacy groups exposed can suffer a variety of forms of backlash from government officials, partisan media outlets, opponent political activists, and more.

At a time of heightened political divide and “cancel culture” tactics, such as doxing and online harassment, Americans need more protection for their privacy, not less. That’s why Virginia passed the bipartisan Personal Privacy Protection Act via S.B. 324 just last year. That law ensures Americans’ personal privacy is protected when joining or supporting a Virginia-based nonprofit cause. It gives citizens of all backgrounds and worldviews the security they need to support the causes they believe in without fear of retaliation.

Yet S.B. 854 is a powerful reminder that some politicians are eager to reverse course and start Virginia down the path of states like California and New York, where donor privacy is degraded and free speech is chilled. S.B. 854 ultimately passed the Virginia Senate on a party-line vote before dying in a House Subcommittee. H.B. 1551 died in the same Subcommittee.

That wasn’t the only danger to free speech Virginians dodged in the 2023 legislative session. While S.B. 854 took aim at nonprofits, Republican Delegate Tim Anderson introduced legislation that would have severely chilled the speech of the business community. H.B. 1648 followed the lead of ultra-progressive Seattle and proposed to ban companies from speaking about elections or candidates if as little as 1% of their equity is held by a foreign shareholder (or 5% is held by a combination of foreign shareholders).

Foreign money is illegal in elections, but the bill’s standards are fatally flawed. Compare H.B. 1648 to federal law, which looks to who controls a corporation’s activity to determine whether it should be prohibited from engaging in certain political acts. That’s a much more targeted and effective way of prohibiting illicit foreign intervention in American election campaigns. The approach taken in H.B. 1648, by contrast, was deemed too radical even by House Democrats in the U.S. Congress, whose 800-plus page overhaul of campaign and ethics laws (H.R. 1) was amended in the 117th Congress to remove a similarly worded provision.

In fact, H.B. 1648 proposed a lower bar for deeming a company “foreign-influenced” than currently exists in any state in the nation. While marketed as a measure to fight foreign interference, the true effect would be forcing a wide range of American companies, owned by American shareholders and run by American executives, to keep silent about American political debates that impact their operations and their employees. Whether one agrees or disagrees with what the business community has to say, they have a First Amendment right to speak just like all other groups in American society. Sincere concerns about preventing foreign influence should not be co-opted to impose new restrictions that ultimately harm Americans.

Fortunately, like S.B. 854 and H.B. 1551, H.B. 1648 was unanimously defeated in a House subcommittee. As a result, Virginians continue to enjoy some of the strongest protections for privacy and free speech in the nation, thanks to the PPPA and a long tradition of individual freedom.

That freedom is a precious thing. Supporters of the First Amendment, like People United for Privacy, will continue to rally to its defense, even as some politicians persist in devising new ways of demanding nonprofits’ donor lists and chilling political debate.