Conservative leaders and nonprofit organizations are protesting California Attorney General Kamala Harris’ demands that nonprofits provide the names and addresses of their donors to her office, which opponents say is a violation of the First Amendment and raises concerns of whether the information will be kept confidential.
Under California law, nonprofits and charities are required to register with the attorney general’s office if they intend to solicit donations from California residents. Harris, though, began asking those organizations to disclose the names and addresses of their donors to her office and now seeks to codify those demands.
Now, as Harris works to put her requirements in the California rule books, nonprofits and other fundraising entities are worried their donors’ information may not be kept confidential and might fall into the hands of bad actors within the state government.
“Nonprofits are part of the heart and soul of American civic life, and this is something that could deter and chill people from participating in those kinds of civic organizations,” Hans von Spakovsky, a senior legal fellow at The Heritage Foundation and former commissioner with the Federal Election Commission, told The Daily Signal. “I think that’s atrociously bad.”
Von Spakovsky joined more than 60 nonprofit leaders, fundraising entities, and lawyers in signing a letter to California Deputy Attorney General Jami Cantore opposing Harris’ demands. Groups including The Heritage Foundation—von Spakovsky’s current employer and the parent organization of The Daily Signal—Heritage Action for America, Tea Party Patriots, and the Goldwater Institute joined in opposition to the demands for donors’ information.
More than 1,400 individuals also expressed their concerns about the government having access to such information in the letter.
“[T]he demands by the California attorney general for names and addresses of donors to charities and other nonprofit organizations violate the privacy and private right of association of donors to tens of thousands of worthy causes,” the groups wrote.
The nonprofit organizations argued that Harris’ demands for the names and addresses of donors are unconstitutional and violate the ruling in the 1958 case NAACP v. Alabama, which protected the right of private association.
“It is well settled that charitable solicitations are protected by the First Amendment, so the [attorney general’s] threats to deny this right to charities wishing to protect the privacy of their donors is extortionate and abusive, and compounds the [attorney general’s] constitutional violations,” the 63 nonprofits, fundraising entities, and lawyers wrote.
In their letter protesting Harris’ donor disclosure requirement, the 63 organizations and nonprofit leaders stressed that the rule failed to detail which employees in the attorney general’s office would have access to donor information.
The demands for information regarding nonprofits’ donors were challenged in a court case mounted by the Center for Competitive Politics, which argued that the reporting requirements were a violation of the First Amendment rights to freedom of association.
A federal appeals court ruled against the Center for Competitive Politics in its legal challenge in May and ruled against the conservative group Americans for Prosperity in a similar case in December.
In its May 2015 ruling against the Center for Competitive Politics’ challenge to Harris’ demands, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the NAACP and its donors faced more severe harassment and intimidation than the donors to groups opposing Harris’ requests for their names and addresses.
Von Spakovsky agreed that members of the NAACP in the 1950s risked getting killed but pointed to the ouster of former Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich as the kind of backlash people may face when the public discovers which political causes they support.
Eich made a political donation to California’s Proposition 8 ballot initiative, which preserved the definition of marriage as the union of one man and one woman, in 2008. After the Los Angeles Times revealed his donation, Eich was forced out of the company he led.
“This is particularly problematic today,” von Spakovsky said. “I don’t think judges today, particularly judges who are older, they don’t understand the social media revolution, and they don’t understand how technology can be used to make the lives of someone totally miserable using all kinds of social media functions in a way that harasses and intimidates folks if they find out who they’re giving money to.”
Under Harris’ watch, nonprofits and charities have been required to reveal the names and addresses of donors on IRS Form 990 Schedule B. Though organizations submit such forms to the state and federal government, they typically redact the information under Schedule B.
Harris, though, required nonprofits to provide an unredacted copy of Form 990 Schedule B to the state, which includes the names, addresses, and contribution amounts of donors.
“It’s a basic First Amendment right and a right of association, which the Supreme Court has recognized in many prior cases that you have a right to private giving,” von Spakovsky said of donors’ right to privacy. “The way I would put this is, the government does not have a right to require me as a citizen to register with them and tell them who I’m giving money to. These are not political candidates. These are membership associations.”