IFS Asks Supreme Court to Halt California Demand for Nonprofit Donor Names

Ninth Circuit ruling violates half-century of free speech precedent

December 19, 2019   •  By IFS Staff   •  
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Alexandria, VA – The Institute for Free Speech late yesterday asked the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn a California mandate requiring nonprofits and charitable organizations to report the names and addresses of their donors to the state. California’s demand violates the right to privacy in association and ignores over a half-century of Supreme Court precedent.

“The Ninth Circuit erred in ruling that donor exposure does not harm the First Amendment. To the contrary, the Supreme Court has long recognized that privacy in association is essential to freedom of speech. When Americans join together in support of a cause, they have a right to be safe from the prying eyes of the state,” said Institute for Free Speech Legal Director Allen Dickerson.

The case began in 2014 when then-California Attorney General Kamala Harris began requiring nonprofits registered in the state to provide donor names and addresses that are kept confidential under federal law. The Institute for Free Speech filed a lawsuit to protect the privacy of its supporters and assert its First Amendment rights. The case continued under the state’s current Attorney General, Xavier Becerra.

A long line of Supreme Court precedent makes clear that states violate the First Amendment when they warehouse sensitive donor information. In the landmark ruling, NAACP v. Alabama, a unanimous Court recognized the “basic constitutional freedom” that all Americans may “pursue their lawful private interests privately and to associate freely with others in so doing.” That decision prevented the state of Alabama from demanding a list of the NAACP’s members.

The Court created a narrow exception to the general rule of private association for groups engaged in electoral advocacy. But this case has nothing to do with elections. California’s demand affects nearly all types of charitable and nonprofit organizations in the state. The Ninth Circuit bypassed fundamental principles of First Amendment law in upholding the mandate, the Institute’s petition explains.

“The Ninth Circuit’s wholesale rejection of this Court’s freedom of association precedents places it wholly outside the holdings of other courts… Indeed, no other court has flatly denied that an inherent First Amendment harm is imposed whenever the Government demands private donor information,” reads the brief.

The Ninth Circuit’s ruling prohibits nonprofits from engaging in protected First Amendment speech if they maintain the privacy of their supporters. The Institute for Free Speech is currently banned from speaking with potential donors in California unless it reports its donors to the state. The Institute has refused to accede to the state’s demands for the last four years.

The Institute’s petition asks the Supreme Court to hear the case, Institute for Free Speech v. Becerra, and reaffirm its longstanding precedents on freedom of association.

To read the Institute’s petition, 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

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