The Supreme Court, on a 6-3 vote on Thursday, canceled out a state law in California that demanded charities provide personal information about their major donors, a move that was considered likely to allow harassment or intimidation of those donors.
“California’s blanket demand that all charities disclose [donor details] to the attorney general is facially unconstitutional,” the majority opinion, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, said.
Those justices perceived as conservative on the bench joined him in the opinion, or in concurrences, while the three liberal justices disagreed.
The case was based on challenges to the state law by Americans for Prosperity Foundation and the Thomas More Law Center.
“Every American should be free to support causes they believe in without fear of harassment or intimidation,” said John Bursch, a senior counsel for the Alliance for Freedom, who had argued on behalf of the nonprofit organizations.
In his brief, Bursch challenged a ruling by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, the most often overturned federal appeals court in the country, that sided with the state.
The 9th Circuit reversed a district court’s decision following a trial, which found that the California attorney general’s office has no compelling need for the information.
“In addition,” wrote Bursch, “the office publicly exposed confidential donor information on the internet and created a perfect target for hackers by uploading thousands of confidential documents to the cloud, where they were easily discovered.”
The attorney argued that California “leaks confidential records like a sieve.”
“That makes mandatory disclosure of sensitive information especially dangerous for donors and employees of nonprofits like Thomas More Law Center, who have faced intimidation, death threats, hate mail, boycotts, and even an assassination attempt from people who don’t agree with them,” he said.
The decision noted that “A dramatic mismatch exists between the interest the attorney general seeks to promote and the disclosure regime that he has implemented.”
The AG at the time the dispute developed was Xavier Becerra, the radically pro-abortion politician who now is Joe Biden’s secretary of Health and Human Services.
“The enormous amount of sensitive information collected … does not form an integral part of California’s fraud detection efforts,” the opinion syllabus said. “California does not rely on [the information] to initiate investigations, and evidence at trial did not support the state’s concern that alternative means of obtaining … information – such as subpoena or audit letter – are inefficient and ineffective…”
It continued, “In reality, California’s interest is less in investigating fraud and more in ease of administration.”
However, the ruling pointed out that the goal of the First Amendment “is not efficiency.”
“The regulation lacks any tailoring to the state’s investigation goals, and the state’s interest in administrative convenience is weak. As a result, every demand that might deter association ‘creates an unnecessary risk of chilling’ in violation of the First Amendment.”
Trial courts for both plaintiffs agreed that the state demand was unconstitutional and granted injunctions, then found for them at trials. It was only at the much-overturned 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that the judges said the state could demand the invasive information and get away with it.
“In both cases, the court found that the petitioners had suffered from threats and harassment in the past, and that donors were likely to face similar retaliation in the future if their affiliations became publicly known. For example, the CEO of [Americans for Prosperity] testified that a technology contractor working at the foundation’s headquarters had posted online that he was ‘inside the belly of the beast’ and ‘could easily walk into [the CEO’s] office and slit his throat,’” the ruling found.
The ruling also found that California was extremely careless with confidential information and “nearly 2,000 confidential” such files were posted to its website. The trial court judge had found the failing “shocking.”
Roberts wrote, “The First Amendment prohibits government from ‘abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.’ This court has ‘long understood as implicit in the right to engage in activities protected by the First Amendment a corresponding right to associate with others.’ Protected association furthers ‘a wide variety of political, social, economic, educational, religious, and cultural ends,’ and ‘is especially important in preserving political and cultural diversity and in shielding dissident expression from suppression by the majority.’ Infringement of this freedom ‘can take a number of forms.’ We have held, for example, that the freedom of association may be violated where a group is required to take in members it does not want, where individuals are punished for their political affiliation, or where members of an organization are denied benefits based on the organization’s message.
“We have also noted that ‘[i]t is hardly a novel perception that compelled disclosure of affiliation with groups engaged in advocacy may constitute as effective a restraint on freedom of association as [other] forms of governmental actions.”
Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan were on the losing side of the equation. They claimed that charity donors are “only too happy to publicize their names across the websites and walls of the organizations they support.”
The losing side claimed the majority “recklessly holds a state regulation facially invalid despite petitioners’ failure to show that a substantial proportion of those affected would prefer anonymity, much less that they are objectively burdened by the loss of it.”
The Alliance Defending Freedom represented the Thomas More Law Center in its fight, and explained California had “demanded the names and addresses of its major donors without any compelling need for the information. A district court trial showed that the office leaked such information like a sieve and created a perfect target for hackers by storing confidential donor information on the internet, where the data could be easily discovered.”
“The Supreme Court has confirmed that every American is free to peacefully support causes they believe in without fear of harassment or intimidation,” said Bursch. “Public advocacy is for everyone, not just 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. The court correctly upheld the First Amendment’s promise of the freedom to associate with like-minded groups, which includes the right to donor privacy.”
The decision remanded for the district court to enter an injunction prohibiting California from blanket collection of charitable organizations’ confidential donor information.
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