Given their shameful history of using donor disclosure to suppress the civil rights movement in the 1950s, the Democrats’ recent decision to revive the practice in H.R. 1 and use it to suppress contemporary dissenters is a bit surprising.
They’re evidently hoping the American people will be too lazy to learn about how they abused donor disclosure in the past, and too naïve to worry about how they might abuse it now or in the future.
Some of us haven’t forgotten.
After decades of hard work, in the mid-1950s the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) finally began to win some significant victories in its long struggle to overturn the system of legally enforced racial discrimination known as Jim Crow. In response, the southern political establishment deployed a new and potent weapon: donor disclosure.
From Virginia to Florida and from North Carolina to Texas, Democratic state attorneys general and Democratic state lawmakers demanded that the civil rights organization divulge its supporters’ names as a condition for operating within their states.
They assumed many supporters would withdraw their support if doing so meant risking reprisals from segregationists, and they were right. Between 1955 and 1957, the civil rights organization’s southern membership declined by more than 50%.
Rather than allow the Democrats to run it out of the state, the NAACP’s Alabama affiliate challenged the disclosure requirement in federal court, and in 1958 it won a decisive victory.
In a unanimous decision, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Alabama’s disclosure law. Unfortunately, instead of finding that the law was unconstitutional on its face, the court found it was unconstitutional as it applied to the NAACP in that particular case.
That narrow ruling is what gives today’s Democrats their opening.
Citing the as-applied nature of the court’s decision in NAACP v. Alabama as justification, the Democratic establishment has recently embarked on a full-blown revival of donor disclosure.
The free and unfettered flow of competing ideas is essential to the operation of our republican system of government.
In 2013, New York State’s Democratic Attorney General Eric Schneiderman began demanding the names of donors to nonprofits operating within the state. California’s Democratic Attorney General Kamala Harris made a similar demand the following year.
Last week – on a party-line vote – the Democrats in the U. S. House of Representatives approved H.R. 1, making donor disclosure a national requirement under federal law.
While the threat of disclosure tends to discourage donations to nonprofit organizations of all kinds, the chilling effect is particularly pronounced for organizations that espouse unpopular views on contentious issues.
In today’s highly polarized and censorious atmosphere, those who are known to support such organizations are subject to devastating forms of retaliation, including boycotts and protests for business owners and job losses and death threats for private individuals.
Rather than risk that kind of retaliation, many people will simply stop supporting controversial organizations. That makes donor disclosure attractive to entrenched political interests, but it also makes it extremely dangerous.
The free and unfettered flow of competing ideas is essential to the operation of our republican system of government and to the survival of our free and open society. That is why the First Amendment protects multiple forms of free expression – not just freedom of speech and freedom of the press, but also the right to assemble, and the right to petition the government.
We can exercise our expressive rights in person by speaking in public, by publishing our thoughts in printed form, by attending political meetings with other like-minded people, and by writing to and calling on our elected representatives. For most of us, however, it is far more efficient and effective to join with others in support of nonprofit organizations that speak and publish and advocate on our behalf.
Donor disclosure laws are dangerous because they make people afraid to exercise their expressive rights in this highly efficient and effective way. That seems to be what today’s Democrats want. For the good of the country, we must prove them wrong.