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Donor Privacy: Still Relevant in the 21st Century

JLF’s Director of Legal Studies, Jon Guze, recently published a report on donor privacy. Donor privacy is an important American institution that allows people to safely make donations to nonprofit organizations without their private information being divulged to the public. Guze explains its importance:

Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, the right to assemble, and the right to petition the government for a redress of grievances: these are vitally important, fundamental rights that protect our ability to express ourselves freely, especially on matters of public policy…

Regulations that force nonprofits to disclose the names of their donors make people afraid to exercise these rights. That is why entrenched political interests favor such regulations, and that is why the rest of us must vigorously oppose them.

In American history, attacks on donor privacy have been weaponized to suppress citizens’ rights. Guze uses the mid-century NAACP v. Alabama case to illustrate:

In the 1950s, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was beginning to win major victories in its long struggle to overturn the system of legally enforced racial discrimination in the American South. In the middle of the decade, however, the Democratic establishment in many Southern states began to deploy a new and effective weapon against the civil rights organization: donor disclosure…

In just two years, from 1955 to 1957, NAACP membership declined in Southern states by more than 50 percent.4

Thankfully, a unanimous Supreme Court in 1958 ruled Alabama’s donor disclosure law unconstitutional – taking down similar laws across the country with it.

However, as calls for donor disclosure laws have reemerged, it appears Americans have forgotten this important lesson. Writing for a three-judge panel in a New York lawsuit challenging donor disclosure laws, Judge Rosemary S. Pooler writes that the stakes of donor disclosure are now “a far cry from the clear and present danger that white supremacist vigilantes and their abettors in the Alabama state government presented to members of the NAACP in the 1950s.”

However, while threats may look different now – from doxing to virtual death threats – that does not make calls for donor protection any less valid. As Guze writes:

Laws and administrative orders that impose donor disclosure requirements on nonprofit organizations make people afraid to exercise their expressive rights, which is why the fight for donor privacy is so important.

Guze offers three important next steps for protecting donor privacy:

To preserve our right to free expression, we must resist these attacks on donor privacy by supporting organizations that are challenging donor disclosure demands in court, by opposing laws and administrative orders that require donor disclosure, and by encouraging the enactment of laws that affirmatively protect donor privacy.

Read Guze’s full report here. Read more of Guze’s work here.

Brenee Goforth / Marketing and Communications Associate

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