Imagine being sorted and sat at your Rotary or Kiwanis Club—or your church—according to your beliefs on controversial issues like gay marriage, abortion, or climate change. People who support the issue on one side, people who oppose on the other. With everyone in the room knowing your private, personal political views.
Think this sounds Orwellian? It’s becoming closer to reality in some states than you might think.
In Montana, Delaware, Utah and a handful of other states, non-profit groups that are working on these sensitive issues are required to report the names and addresses of their financial supporters to the government. What’s so bad about that, you wonder?
Ask Margie Christopherson, a waitress in California who lost her job after her $100 donation to support traditional marriage became public. The restaurant where she worked was picketed by gay marriage advocates. Eventually the protests took their toll on business and several people lost their jobs.
Or Eric O’Keefe, who had his door bashed in with a battering ram during a pre-dawn raid by police in paramilitary gear. His crime? He worked for a group that supported Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s labor union reforms.
You may recall last year just after Thanksgiving, a man went to a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs and went on a shooting rampage. He shot and tragically killed three people and wounded nine others because of his views against abortion. If the law in Colorado required the name and addresses of all donors to that Planned Parenthood be made public, that man would have known where others who supported the organization lived in the community and the tragedy could have been much worse.
Closer to home, state think tanks have had their servers hacked, offices broken into and picketed, board materials stolen, board members’ businesses boycotted and harassed by government agencies, and events crashed. The president of the Goldwater Institute’s home address was published online and the next day, someone left a dead animal on her front door steps.
If the government put the names and addresses of people who support controversial causes on the internet for anyone to look up, it’s only a matter of time before someone gets hurt.
Every American has the right to support causes they believe in without fear of harassment or intimidation.
That’s why State Policy Network, state policy organizations around the country, and partner organizations are coming together to educate lawmakers and the public about the consequences of donor disclosure bills that might otherwise seem like no big deal.
We’ve all got a full plate of issues, with budgets growing, taxes increasing, and failing schools, but if we can’t promise our supporters that they won’t have angry protestors showing up on their lawn, we’re not going to have the resources to tackle any of those mission-critical issues. Protecting private charitable giving is mission critical, too.
Current Attacks on Donor Privacy
The Alabama Policy Institute, Goldwater Institute, Buckeye Institute, Washington Policy Center, Rio Grande Foundation, and Freedom Foundation of Minnesota, among several others have been actively engaged in educating people of the dangers of requiring non-profit groups to report the names and addresses of their donors to the government.
If you take a look at those groups again, you’ll notice something they do not have in common. They are in red, blue, and purple states. This is not a partisan issue. While it may seem like an attack that would come from the Left to harass and target conservatives based on our beliefs, the truth is, just as many Republicans introduce state-level disclosure bills as Democrats.
What’s really going on is that people in power who don’t like being challenged—from the Left or the Right—are using the force of law and state agencies to target their dissenting opponents.
We saw this in Georgia last year. A Republican lawmaker introduced a disclosure bill hours before the Legislature adjourned because Americans for Tax Reform had publicized his vote on a tax increase.
In states like Alabama and South Carolina, Republican lawmakers who want to out the supporters of their opponents took advantage of political scandals to push “ethics bills” that include mandatory disclosure provisions. Instead of shining a light where it matters—on the elected officials themselves—the focus becomes forcing private organization with a dissenting perspective on policy issues to report the names and addresses of their supporters to the government.
In at least six states this year, state lawmakers considered bills that were written so broadly and vaguely that everyday activities of 501c3 groups, like communicating with supporters about proposed laws that impact our missions, would have been reclassified as “electioneering communications” and the groups re-termed “political committees” and therefore subject to donor disclosure requirements that are meant for candidate campaign committees.
We are also seeing an effort to redefine what “coordination” means. In the campaign finance context, coordination has meant that a nonprofit group can’t join up with a candidate campaign to try to skirt campaign contribution disclosure laws. But now the push is to redefine coordination to prevent two private organizations that share a mission from working together to advance an idea. They want to use the law to prevent center-right groups from sharing information and resources.
Another troubling trend is that some state regulators are going it alone. Already in half-a-dozen states non-profits can be forced to hand over their list of top supporters before they can even do business in the state. The problem with this is that once a document is given to a state agency, it becomes subject to public records law. So, if a group is forced to turn over its supporter list to the state of New York in order to fundraise there, and a left-leaning group wanted to get that list, they could send a public records request to the state attorney general who regulates charities, and there is no mechanism in state law to decline the request. This provides a backdoor way for donors to be exposed.
We’re also seeing state ethics commissions and campaign finance regulators unilaterally decide that certain groups must reveal their donors before they can testify at the state legislature or engage in other First Amendment protected activities.
And, when activists supporting these laws can’t get lawmakers or regulators to force donor disclosure, they go straight to voters with misleading and deceptive ballot initiatives.
All of this demonstrates why it is so important for all of us to be paying attention to all indications about this issue in every state—it may not seem like an issue that impacts state think tanks, but it absolutely does.
Ultimately, we have to ask ourselves why people would want this information? Some of the advocates calling for these measures actually come right out and say it.
Tom Matzzie, a co-founder of Move On, told the New York Times his group was “alerting donors who might be considering giving to right-wing groups to a variety of potential dangers, including legal trouble, public exposure and watchdog groups digging through their lives.” He said they were “going for the jugular.”
What would make that group’s work easier? A government registry of contributions to every non-profit group so that they could easily identify and single out supporters of those groups they oppose.
Protecting our supporter’s from harassment and intimidation must be a top priority issue. SPN has developed resources to help when—not if—this issue comes to your state. Please reach out to Starlee Coleman (firstname.lastname@example.org) for videos, messaging help, and other collateral that will help you protect the First Amendment for all Americans.
Starlee Coleman is a senior policy advisor at State Policy Network. Write her at email@example.com.