Our public discourse is so fraught the people are censoring themselves because they’re scared of being punished for their beliefs. In fact, CATO Institute found that nearly two-thirds of Americans self-censor.
But it is one thing not to speak your mind because of what your peers or random people on the Internet might think about you or do to you because of it. It’s another thing if you’re scared into silence because of the government.
Unfortunately, Thomas More Law Center and its supporters have become familiar with both kinds of pressure.
TMLC is a nonprofit that defends and promotes religious freedom, moral and family values, and the sanctity of human life. Because TMLC speaks out on these controversial issues and publicly joins with others to promote them, TMLC’s supporters, clients, and employees become targets. They’ve already faced intimidation, death threats, hate mail, boycotts, and even an assassination plot from those who disagree with them.
This is serious business. Yet, the State of California has been piling on—bringing a whole new threat to TMLC’s supporters. The California Attorney General’s Office is demanding that all nonprofits who fundraise in the state, including TMLC, turn over their supporters’ names and addresses every year.
If the AG’s office—intentionally or accidentally—let this information leak, any number of people could get their hands on the names and addresses of individuals across the nation who have supported a cause, and dox them. Today, when someone’s deeply held beliefs are exposed, this could easily motivate others to harass or attack them.
The government has no business forcing charities to hand over sensitive information it doesn’t need. In today’s culture, where political hostility drives a large portion of the country to self-censor for fear of blacklisting or worse, such policies can invite others to expose and punish their political opponents for their beliefs.
This weakens our discourse and ultimately our freedom of association—our right to choose which groups or messages we associate with (or donate to support). We’d all be cautious to associate with groups if we thought our affiliation with them would cause harm to us or the people we love.
That’s why TMLC is challenging California’s disclosure mandate at the U.S. Supreme Court, which will hear the case later this month.
This isn’t the first time in our nation’s history that our freedom of association has been tested by the government.
In the period following the Second World War, the government launched a campaign against the Communist party by attempting to unearth and blacklist alleged communists.
During the process, the government launched investigations into private citizens, and many individuals who weren’t in fact part of the Communist party were unfairly accused and punished. This period of time was known as the second Red Scare and was largely led by Senator Joseph McCarthy, whose name became synonymous with the government’s paranoia-incited overreach.
When it’s the government’s fault that private information of its citizens is revealed or abused, that’s a violation of the First Amendment. And unfortunately, California’s unconstitutional mandate crosses that line.
No one wants the events of the second Red Scare to be repeated, but that’s what California’s mandate threatens.
The NAACP already won a case like this in 1958. Shortly after racial segregation was struck down in Brown v Board of Education in 1956, Alabama demanded that the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) hand over the names and addresses of their members and supporters. Doing this would’ve put their members in real danger and it was an obvious intimidation tactic.
Two years later, in NAACP v. Alabama, the Supreme Court gave full protection to the NAACP and organizations like it, properly recognizing the right to free association in the First Amendment. In this decision, the Court ruled that the state must hurdle a high bar to force non-profits to hand over supporters’ information.
The bottom line is that every person should have the freedom to support causes they believe in without fearing that they’ll be punished for their beliefs.
That will not happen if charities hand over their supporters’ information to the California Attorney General’s office. Given the California Attorney General’s political bent and his office’s habit of leaking confidential records like a sieve, donors will have legitimate reason to fear backlash for their associations.
It’s dangerous for California, or any government for that matter, to needlessly collect a database of people’s beliefs. The government could use this information to quietly punish citizens with whom they disagree. Just because the California AG’s office isn’t threatening to use donor information this way now doesn’t mean they won’t someday try to.
We already know what happens when the government exposes and targets individuals because of their beliefs. And that’s a time in our history that should stay in the past.
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