We are seeing it happen more and more. Someone posts a tweet on a contentious subject. And within hours, their personal information is published on the internet. Where they work, where they went to school, their personal phone number, and even their home address is made public for all to see.
In our current toxic social climate, expressing your views can be dangerous. It makes sense that some donors prefer to keep private the names of the nonprofit organizations to which they give.
But some officials in the state of California are making donor privacy a thing of the past. Thankfully, one nonprofit organization, the Thomas More Law Center (TMLC) is taking a stand. And next week, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear its case.
Read more about this important case below.
Who: Thomas More Law Center
The Thomas More Law Center (TMLC) is named for 16th-century English statesman, Sir Thomas More. He famously chose public execution over betraying his conscience. Today, TMLC supports those who want to live by the same principles as More did. Its mission is to be the “sword and shield” for people of faith, to promote faith and family values, and protect the sanctity of human life.
As a nonprofit organization, TMLC relies on the support of donors from across the country to operate. And though located in Michigan, TMLC receives some donations from California, the nation’s most populous state.
But in 2012, California officials told TMLC that it had to hand over sensitive donor information or stop fundraising in the state altogether.
In March of 2012, California officials contacted TMLC and demanded that it hand over private information on its top donors to the state Attorney General’s Office. TMLC was perplexed. California had never before required it to turn over that information.
But in 2010, the state’s Attorney General’s Office changed the rules to require hundreds of nonprofits across the country that fundraise in California to disclose annually the names and addresses of their largest donors.
TMLC was concerned about this sudden change and for its donors’ privacy.
The California Attorney General’s Office is not exactly known for its ability to keep data private. In fact, it has a reputation for the opposite, leaking confidential information like a sieve.
Donors, employees, and clients of nonprofits like TMLC have faced intimidation, death threats, hate mail, boycotts, and even an assassination plot from ideological opponents. If information about TMLC’s donors became public, there could be grave consequences.
California’s requirement that nonprofits like TMLC annually hand over their major supporters’ names and addresses in order to fundraise in the state is unconstitutional. It violates the freedom of association protected by the First Amendment.
So, TMLC challenged the Attorney General’s Office in court.
It was in March of 2012 that the California Attorney General’s Office first asked TMLC to hand over its sensitive donor information.
Seven years later, in March of 2019, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled against TMLC, side-stepping relevant precedents in the process. So, on August 26, 2019, TMLC asked the United States Supreme Court to take up its case. And next week, on April 26, the Supreme Court will do just that, hearing arguments in Thomas More Law Center's case, which has been combined with another similar case, Americans for Prosperity Foundation v. Rodriquez.
The California Attorney General’s Office doesn’t have a good track record when it comes to keeping sensitive information safe.
In 2009, employees mislabeled nearly 1,800 confidential Schedule B tax documents as “public” and made them available to anyone online. In a separate incident, all of the Registry of Charitable Trusts’ confidential documents could be accessed online simply by altering a single digit at the end of each document’s URL.
Some government authorities—like the IRS—may have a consistent record of keeping donors’ confidential information secure. But the California Attorney General’s Office is not one of them, and its inexcusable negligence puts people’s jobs and lives at risk.
Why: To protect donor privacy and the freedom of association
California’s blanket demand for the names and addresses of nonprofit supporters is dangerous, unnecessary, and uncalled for. The California Attorney General’s Office leaks confidential records like a sieve—and that’s especially dangerous for givers, employees, and clients of nonprofits like TMLC who have faced intimidation, death threats, hate mail, and boycotts from ideological opponents.
Nonprofits like TMLC haven’t done anything wrong. And what’s more, California is unlikely to use any of the information it gains from this process. In the past decade, the Attorney General’s Office has used less than one percent of such information.
Groups from across the ideological spectrum agree that handing over this information should not be a requirement of fundraising in the state and have asked the Supreme Court to protect donor privacy.
The Bottom Line
Every American should be free to support causes they believe in without fear of harassment or intimidation.
Thomas More Law Center relies on the donations of generous supporters to operate. These supporters believe strongly in TMLC’s cause, but they have a good reason to want to keep their information private. If their donations become public, they could be targeted for harassment—or worse—by ideological opponents.
Everyone deserves a voice, not merely those able to weather abuse.
You probably have a nonprofit organization you give to. Is this something you would want to happen to you?
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