The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which built its reputation on defending the freedom of speech and other individual rights, has joined the cause of defending Americans’ right to donate anonymously to political causes they believe in. The organization’s actions come as laws threatening donor privacy are spreading across the country, backed by liberals who decry the supposed evils of so-called “dark money.”
NJ.com reports that the ACLU is challenging a recently enacted New Jersey law which requires non-profit organizations to disclose the identity of donors who give $10,000 or more when those groups spend at least $3,000 to influence an election, legislation, or regulations. These kinds of donations, which can legally be made anonymously, have become a bogeyman of the political left who are bent on rooting out the influence of wealthy donors in political campaigns. Nevermind that liberals, too, can and do benefit from anonymous political contributions.
That makes it all the more significant that the recently left-of-center ACLU is returning to its roots as a stalwart for the Constitution and joining groups like the Goldwater Institute, which have been challenging these laws for years. The ACLU is challenging the New Jersey law in U.S. District Court on the grounds that it violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments—and for good reason. As the ACLU notes, the law has negative consequences for donors, non-profit organizations, and society at large, also reported at NJ.com:
“This law discourages people from donating to non-profit organizations that advocate for causes that they believe make people’s lives better,” said ACLU-NJ Legal Director Jeanne LoCicero. “The law sweeps up hundreds of advocacy organizations, including those that don’t take sides in elections, and even some that don’t directly engage in lobbying the government.”
“All nonprofits should be able to speak out on urgent issues of the day without a fear of being subject to disclosure rules that go beyond the bounds of what the Constitution allows,” said ACLU General Counsel Terence Dougherty.
New Jersey isn’t alone in threatening donor privacy. Denver, Colo., Sante Fe, N.M., and Tempe and Phoenix, Ariz., passed laws that threaten the constitutional rights of people to support causes they believe in, without fearing that they will be harassed and intimidated by their ideological opponents. The Goldwater Institute is challenging the Denver and Sante Fe laws in court. (Notably, Arizona and Mississippi have passed laws in defense of donor privacy.)
These legal challenges are occurring as politicians and celebrities alike are using people’s political campaign contributions as weapons to eviscerate them in the public sphere. Recently, U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro tweeted out the names and occupations of 44 San Antonians who contributed the maximum amount to President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign. In Hollywood, two actors from the once-popular Will & Grace show also took to Twitter, calling for Trump donors in Tinseltown to be outed—and then half-heartedly backtracked when they were criticized for advocating the blacklisting of political opponents, a la Joseph McCarthy. (Castro, though, doubled down on his tweet-shame tactic.)
This isn’t the first time in history that the government has sought to reveal the identity of individuals who support causes and non-profit organizations. In the 1950s, Southern states attempted to force the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to turn over the names of its supporters to government inspectors, as Goldwater Institute Senior Attorney Matt Miller explains in a recent paper.
“That was a dangerous prospect for the NAACP—then in the midst of its epochal battle against segregation,” Miller writes. “In fact, the state’s demands had already cost the NAACP more than half its Southern membership over the previous three years, as donors feared that the Association might comply and that their identities might be publicized, leading to ostracism or even violent retaliation.”
In the 1958 Supreme Court case of National Association for the Advancement of Colored People v. Alabama, the Court rescued the NAACP and its donors from a dangerous government overreach and upheld the constitutional right to donate anonymously to non-profit groups. The Court’s rationale was that anonymity and privacy are vital because they allow people to support causes they believe in without fear of reprisal by people who disagree with their beliefs.
“This need for privacy is all the more vital today, where the internet makes it easy to publish lists of donors—and easy to harass and intimidate them,” Miller writes. That’s a lesson that should be remembered as the ACLU brings its challenge in New Jersey, as anti-donor-privacy laws pop up across the country, and as activists take to Twitter to vilify those who disagree with their politics.
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