Attacks on donor privacy are increasingly seen as one of the foremost threats to free speech in America, if a Thursday event at the Heritage Foundation is any indication. The conservative think tank brought in four speakers to address assaults on the First Amendment ranging from infringements on religious liberty to university speech codes to everything in between. Two of the four speakers devoted the majority of their remarks to problems the Center for Competitive Politics is all too familiar with – intimidation tactics and bureaucratic bullying aimed at silencing the speech of advocacy organizations by exposing their supporters to retaliation and harassment.
Both Mitchell and Alt focused their comments on attacks on donor privacy – with kind words for the work we do here at CCP. First, Mitchell took on the task of summarizing where these threats came from. That’s no easy feat considering that donor privacy is under attack from many directions, but Mitchell hit all the major scandals. She explained the IRS targeting scandal and how it was encouraged by a relentless pressure campaign driven by a cadre of activist groups and members of Congress who wanted to shut down their political opponents. She praised CCP Chair and former FEC Commissioner Bradley A. Smith, along with former Commissioners von Spakovsky and Don McGahn, for resisting these activist groups when they served on the Commission – thereby forcing them to shop for a new agency to take up their complaints. Unfortunately, they found one in the IRS.
Mitchell then moved from the federal government to the states, where the problem is arguably even worse. She recapped the outrageous John Doe investigation in Wisconsin and the witch-hunt of Montana Republicans by the state’s Commissioner of Political Practices, Jonathan Motl, formerly a member of one of those activist speech-suppressing organizations – Common Cause of Montana. She also discussed the campaign by state attorneys general to investigate groups based on their views on climate change.
After Mitchell had outlined the threats to advocacy groups, Robert Alt discussed contemporary legal challenges seeking to protect donor privacy, including two spearheaded by CCP – CCP v. Harris and Delaware Strong Families (DSF) v. Denn. I was particularly glad to see discussion of DSF, a case that illustrates how seemingly arcane regulations can silence speech in the real world. The Supreme Court’s refusal to consider whether states can force groups who publish purely informational, nonpartisan voter guides to abide by regulations similar to those imposed on candidates and PACs threatens the activities of every nonprofit that mentions the names of public officials – which is virtually all of them. No wonder Alt remarked that the DSF case “should worry every person in this room.” I’ll endorse another of the comments he made at the event as well: “we need to fight.”
While it can be disheartening to observe the many significant threats to free speech that have emerged in recent years, and bewildering to see the courts fail to vindicate the rights of small nonprofits like DSF, recognizing the problem is the first step to solving it. What we find again and again is that when the public is informed about these abuses of privacy and free speech, they are outraged. The problem is that too few people know they even happen. One member of the audience asked the room sarcastically, “Is anyone from The Washington Post here?” No one was.
The work of educating and mobilizing support for donor privacy continues. CCP is on the front lines of that battle, sounding the alarm bell and working with groups who find themselves under assault. You can learn more about our legal work here, or delve into the many debates over political freedom on our blog. While disclosure laws often seem too in-the-weeds to impact our lives, they strike at the heart of the First Amendment: specifically, the right of Americans to privately support the causes they believe in without fear of intimidation and harassment.