Even though it’s the home of Silicon Valley and social media’s “cancel culture,” it hasn’t registered with California that it’s more important than ever to protect the privacy of those who support charities, like the Thomas More Law Center.
Starting in 2012, the state began demanding that the Thomas More Law Center and all other nonprofits—including Planned Parenthood—submit the names and addresses of all their major supporters to the California Attorney General’s office if they want to fundraise in the state.
The First Amendment’s promise of “free association” includes the right to citizen privacy, but California leaks confidential records like a sieve. That’s especially dangerous for givers, employees, and clients of nonprofits like the Law Center, who have faced intimidation, death threats, hate mail, boycotts, and even an assassination attempt from ideological opponents.
Represented by Alliance Defending Freedom, the Law Center has appealed its case to the U.S. Supreme Court, where it awaits the Court’s decision on whether to take it up.
Let’s take a look.
The Thomas More Law Center, a nonprofit organization based in Michigan, defends and promotes religious freedom, moral and family values, and the sanctity of human life.
Unfortunately, the work that the Law Center does makes it a popular target for harassment. Employees, givers, and clients have faced intimidation, death threats, hate mail, and boycotts from ideological opponents.
The Law Center solicits donations from all over the country, and roughly 5 percent of its supporters are California residents. It has operated as a charity in good standing with California’s Attorney General for many years.
However, in March 2012, the office of the Attorney General began to demand that the Law Center turn over the names and addresses of its major supporters. The state hardly ever uses supporter information for any purpose. It never launches or ends investigations with the information. But its demands for donors’ names and addresses pose a threat to everyone’s freedom to support causes they believe in without fear of harassment or intimidation.
California’s demand is completely unnecessary. The ADF Supreme Court brief challenging this blanket disclosure rule states:
Requiring hundreds of charities to disclose donors’ names and addresses annually to a Registry with a proven history of leaking confidential information will have a devastating impact on support. In contrast, the Attorney General does not need donors’ confidential information, hardly ever uses it, and can readily obtain that data via an audit or subpoena on a reasonable suspicion of fraud.
Meanwhile, California Attorney General’s office offers no protection against employees, contractors, or summer interns downloading, emailing, or printing donors’ names and addresses and then disclosing them publicly.
California’s practice violates the Constitution and existing Supreme Court precedent. The Supreme Court decision in NAACP v. Alabama—which protected NAACP supporters from being targeted by white supremacists—has protected freedom of association for over 60 years, and today’s toxic environment is no time to remove that key safeguard.
Unlike the federal government, which has severe criminal penalties in place to prevent the IRS leaking information about charitable donations, California has no such safeguard. Only the most stalwart supporters would give money to a nonprofit under such a dangerous cloud.
It’s vital to note that California requires all nonprofits that want to fundraise in the state to provide all their major supporters’ information every year—even when there is no reason to suspect the nonprofits have done anything wrong. This exposes sensitive information for supporters of the Thomas More Law Center and Planned Parenthood alike.
In August of 2019, ADF filed its brief with the U.S. Supreme Court, and a decision to hear the case is expected as early as today. ADF Senior Counsel John Bursch explains why this case matters to every American:
Public advocacy is for everyone, not merely 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. California’s policy makes the First Amendment’s promise of ‘free association’ a pipe dream. And donors have good reason to fear in today’s toxic cultural climate, especially with the astounding negligence that California has demonstrated in keeping confidential information from being disclosed that it has no good reason to demand in the first place.
We’ve already seen widespread “doxing” (sharing of private information) over the Internet with the intent of doing harm. This ruins careers and corrodes civil discourse. Every American should be free to support causes they believe in without fear of harassment or intimidation.