Court Hearing on Nonprofit Donor Privacy Set for 9/17

Massachusetts' demand for donor information violates right to association

September 16, 2019   •  By IFS Staff   •  
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Alexandria, VA – Attorneys from the Institute for Free Speech will appear in federal court on Tuesday to represent the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance (MassFiscal) in a donor privacy case. MassFiscal is challenging a state law that requires ads that name candidates within 90 days of a general election to include a list of the organization’s top five contributors and a lengthy disclaimer. The hearing will consider a motion to compel MassFiscal to disclose those same donors to the state as part of the litigation discovery process.

“Vindicating First Amendment rights in federal court should not involve the government rummaging through constitutionally-protected donor information, especially when, as here, that information is of no value to the Commonwealth’s case,” said Institute for Free Speech Legal Director Allen Dickerson.

The hearing will be held at 10:30 AM ET in Courtroom 12 of the John Joseph Moakley U.S. Courthouse, 1 Courthouse Way, Boston, Massachusetts.

The case began in 2018 when MassFiscal wished to run ads about proposed tax increases and a legislative pay raise. Because the ads named an incumbent officeholder who was up for re-election, state law required the ads to list MassFiscal’s top five contributors, even though the candidate was running unopposed. The law would also force the group’s chairman to appear on televised communications and personally read the state’s mandated disclaimer, which takes up nearly 20 percent of the length of an ad.

Unwilling to forfeit the privacy of its donors or publish irrelevant information on the face of its ads, MassFiscal sued the state in November 2018 for violating its constitutional right to private association and free speech. The group ultimately ran the ads after the election without the disclaimers.

“Our state government should be working to expand our First Amendment rights, not contract them. This lawsuit is not about getting rid of disclosure. Rather, this is about removing intimidation from the process,” commented Paul Craney, a member of the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance Board of Directors and spokesman for the organization.

On July 12, the state filed a motion to compel MassFiscal to disclose its top five contributors to the government. MassFiscal opposed that motion on July 26, setting the stage for Tuesday’s hearing. The brief filed by MassFiscal and IFS notes that the state “does not suggest that these donors’ identities are relevant in themselves to the resolution of this case,” which “turns on the scope of the statute and the government’s legitimate informational needs, not the subjective fears of any particular contributor.”

“The Commonwealth’s avowed intention to conduct third-party discovery of the Alliance’s principal donors over the past five years is obviously invasive, violates the fundamental constitutional right to privacy of association and belief, and will irrevocably damage the Alliance’s relationships with those supporters and its future activities. For these reasons, the Alliance asks this Court to deny the Commonwealth’s motion,” explains the brief.

To read the Institute’s brief, click here. For more information about the case, Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance v. Sullivan, click here.

About the Institute for Free Speech

The Institute for Free Speech is a nonpartisan, nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization that promotes and defends the First Amendment rights to freely speak, assemble, publish, and petition the government. Originally known as the Center for Competitive Politics, it was founded in 2005 by Bradley A. Smith, a former Chairman of the Federal Election Commission. The Institute is the nation’s largest organization dedicated solely to protecting First Amendment political rights.

IFS Staff

IFS Staff