Keeping the personal information of donors to charitable organizations private is such an important issue that there is a case pending at the U.S. Supreme Court about it. The upcoming decision, expected by the end of June, may either help or hinder the efforts of 501(c) organizations to achieve their important charitable purposes, whether it be to advance a specific point of view on life or marriage or gender, or perhaps just simply operating as a local church. The stakes are high.
Some states aren’t waiting around to let the nation’s highest court address the issue, however. Arkansas, Iowa and Tennessee have all passed donor protection laws recently, with a view toward keeping personal information private, except where the information is required by law. And even then, disclosure of such information to the public is not only forbidden, but punishable by civil and criminal penalties.
In Arkansas the bill is SB 535; Iowa’s version is HF 309; and Tennessee passed HB 159.
Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), whose lawyers recently argued in the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of a Michigan charitable organization in the case of Thomas More Law Center v. Bonta, about the need for constitutional protection for donors’ personal information, hailed the actions of these states.
“Every American should be free to peacefully support causes they believe in without fear of harassment or intimidation,” said ADF’s Senior Counsel and Vice President of Appellate Advocacy, John Bursch, in a press release. “Public advocacy is for everyone, not just those able to weather abuse. Forced donor disclosure is a threat to everyone and discourages both charitable giving and participation in the marketplace of ideas. The justices carefully listened to the arguments, and we hope the court will decide in favor of the First Amendment’s promise of the freedom to associate with like-minded groups, which includes the right to citizen privacy.”
In this era where public policy has degenerated into the politics of personal destruction, complete with “doxxing” and “canceling” in vogue, donors may justifiably be reluctant to give to causes they believe in for fear that their names and addresses may show up on a public website and/or they start receiving hate mail and threats. Some people have ended up losing their jobs because they donated to a conservative cause.
This is not a new issue. In the late 1950s, during the rise of the civil rights movement in America, the NAACP came to prominence as African Americans supported it with their contributions and their membership. But when the state of Alabama came requesting the identities of the NAACP’s members, the dispute went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, and in a unanimous landmark decision, the justices ruled that the First Amendment’s guarantees of free association outweighed Alabama’s purported need to regulate corporations doing business in the state.
Hopefully, the measures taken by these three states will catch on in other states. And when the Supreme Court hands down its decision soon in the Thomas More Law Center case, we’ll let you know how that will impact the First Amendment rights of charities and their donors.