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California Targets Free Speech and Charities

Debra Saunders on

After the Supreme Court issued a 6-3 ruling Thursday that invalidated California's practice of demanding that charities disclose their largest donors to the state attorney general, lawyer Casey Mattox of the conservative Americans for Prosperity Foundation marveled at the coalition that came together to fight the machine.

When the California attorney general notified charitable organizations in 2010 that they had to share information they file with the IRS with the Golden State, Americans for Prosperity Foundation and Thomas More Law Center, which promotes religious freedom, fought back. The policy, they argued, could infringe on free speech and free association rights.

By the time the case, Americans for Prosperity Foundation v. Bonta, made it to the U.S. Supreme Court last fall, the American Civil Liberties Union, Southern Poverty Law Center and NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund were on board with their cause.

"With First Amendment rights, it's always important to ask: Would I trust the person I like the least in politics to be responsible for making these determinations?" Mattox told me.

If the court had upheld California's practice, other states less friendly to left-leaning groups could follow suit. But that didn't stop Sacramento.

Be it noted, the California practice targeted charities -- 501(c)(3)s -- not political campaigns that are required by law to report contributions.

 

In arguing to keep the policy, the California attorney general's office said it would not release donor information. But a plaintiff's expert "was able to access hundreds of thousands of confidential documents" on the attorney general's website by changing a digit on the official URL, Chief Justice John Roberts observed in the majority opinion, which split along ideological lines.

Speaking before the decision was released, University of California law school professor John Yoo said, "The state can't force you to reveal anonymous supporters for a nonprofit" because the big bench is on record recognizing anonymity as crucial for free speech and free association. Its landmark NAACP v. Alabama decision overturned a 1958 state law to require NAACP to disclose the identity of its members to Alabama, because of its chilling effect.

Yes, politicians should be ready to accept heat for their public positions, but governments should not use their power to intimidate citizens from exercising their free speech rights.

Just as voters make their choices in the privacy of the voting booth, some people prefer to keep their support for causes private.

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