Pro-freedom, pro-family groups back suit against California’s ‘unlawful’ donor disclosure rules

'The Attorney General compels disclosure of highly sensitive donor information that he does not need, then trusts that information to the care of students, seasonal workers, and the Internet'
Mon Mar 1, 2021 - 1:13 pm EST
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California Attorney General Xavier Becerra Pool / Getty

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March 1, 2021 (LifeSiteNews) – Top pro-freedom and pro-family groups are throwing their support behind a lawsuit against California’s invasive donor disclosure laws that was taken up by the Supreme Court in January.

Thomas More Law Center v. Xavier Becerra, filed with the high court in 2019, challenges a California rule requiring nonprofits to disclose personal information of major donors to the state attorney general. A ruling is expected later this week.

Michigan-based Thomas More Law Center (TMLC), a conservative, Catholic law firm, initially sued then-California attorney general Kamala Harris, after her office pressured the group for names and addresses of donors, TMLC  said. Harris’ successor, Xavier Becerra, currently the Biden administration’s nominee to run the top U.S. health agency, continued as the respondent.

“After the Law Center fundraised in California for more than a decade with no complaints filed, the Attorney General deemed the Law Center's 2010 registration filing insufficient” in 2012, because the group refused to hand over donors’ private information, TMLC said.

The attorney general’s office “threatened to suspend the Law Center's nonprofit registration and impose personal fines on its directors, officers, and return preparers,” the group added. TMLC refused to comply, while donors and other associates have suffered death threats and assassination attempts, reported a 2019 press statment from Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a top pro-freedom law group representing TMLC.

A district court accordingly halted attempts to force the law firm to disclose information and found that the Attorney General’s office had previously made over 350,000 private disclosure documents accessible online. A circuit court later overturned the order.

“The Attorney General compels disclosure of highly sensitive donor information that he does not need, then trusts that information to the care of students, seasonal workers, and the Internet, all with predictable results,” ADF said in the group’s first brief since the Supreme Court took the TMLC case. 

“Nothing stops these workers—or other employees—from downloading, emailing, printing, or taking” documents, they added, noting that “California has no laws that punish disclosure by the Attorney General’s Office.”

LGBT activists attack Californians thanks to disclosure rules

Other major pro-freedom and pro-family groups have signed on to the suit, including the James Madison Center for Free Speech (JMCFS). The JMCFS filed a brief last week with evidence of harassment suffered by conservative Californians at the hands of LGBT supporters due to the state’s political disclosure requirements. 

The group highlighted the experience of proponents of Proposition 8, a successful 2009 ballot initiative to prohibit same-sex marriage in the state. 

“Gay-rights advocates used the personal information publicly provided under California law to launch a vicious campaign of harassment, intimidation and reprisals against Prop 8 supporters,” JMCFS said. 

“California’s release of personal information led directly to death threats, threats of violence, vandalism, threats of destruction of property, arson, threats of arson, angry and lewd protests, intimidating emails and phone calls, mailed envelopes of suspicious powder,” and “gross expressions of anti-religious bigotry,” they added.

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The James Madison Center’s brief cites over 80 instances of harassment, intimidation, and reprisals reported by dozens of anonymous Prop 8 supporters, as well as 157 published accounts of similar abuse.

“Because California required public release of identities, home addresses, and employers of donors to [a Prop 8 sponsor group], political opponents were able to publish this personal information on websites with maps showing donors’ homes and businesses so that aggressive activists could attack them there,” the brief said, noting nearly one dozen similar websites or online “blacklists.” 

Anonymous victims quoted in the brief said that the attacks made them less likely to contribute to other controversial causes in the future. 

“This vicious campaign cast a chill over supporters and would-be supporters of an organization advocating a position on an important and fundamental political and social cause. And that is a violation of the First Amendment right to speech and association,” the JMCFS said.

A brief filed by the Proposition 8 Legal Defense Fund emphasized the danger of California’s policies in even starker terms, pointing to “personal physical violence” against Proposition 8 backers. 

“For example, a Prop 8 supporter who was distributing campaign signs was taken to the hospital for 16 stitches after being punched in the face by someone attempting to take and destroy the signs,” the brief read.

It noted that local pro-family activists were “victims of physical assaults such as being spat upon and having hot coffee thrown on them by passengers in passing automobiles.” “In another incident, an elderly woman was spit at while protestors knocked out of her hands and stomped on a cross she carried,” the brief continued. 

“The real harms suffered by AFPF and the Law Center (as well as amicus Defense Fund) and their donors are not unique or isolated,” the defense fund said. “It is inevitable that people will suffer tangible harm if the California Attorney General’s unlawful practice is allowed to stand.”

Other major pro-freedoms groups, including the Pacific Legal Foundation, American Center for Law and Justice, and Concerned Women for America, have filed other supportive briefs. The Trump administration formally backed the case late last year. 

Federal legislation threatening the privacy of donors to conservative non-profits

Pro-life, pro family organizations are also warning that the federal H.R. 1 bill, which was introduced in the House of Representatives in January, would force all non-profit organizations involved in political activity to disclose the names of donors to the government, thereby making them searchable on public databases and liable to harassment and intimidation.

“If H.R. 1 becomes law, the names of our thousands of supporters would become available in a public database, potentially putting their jobs, livelihood and safety in jeopardy,” wrote Kristin Hawkins, President of Students for Life Action, in an open letter sent to members of the U.S. House of Representatives today.

Earlier this year, Hawkins signed onto a coalition letter from United for Privacy in opposition to H.R.1, sent to the leadership of the House and Senate that read: 

On behalf of the millions of Americans who cherish and rely on the right to support causes we believe in without fear of harassment and intimidation, we, the undersigned individuals and organizations, ask you to reject H.R. 1 and S. 1, the deceptively named “For the People Act.” 

Nonprofit organizations serve a vital role in encouraging free speech and the free exchange of ideas. Privately supporting causes -- and the organizations advancing those causes -- is a fundamental freedom protected by the First Amendment.

H.R. 1 and S. 1 would dramatically alter the First Amendment protections that Americans have enjoyed since the founding of our country. It would institute sweeping new burdens on their constitutionally protected rights to freely speak, publish, and organize into groups to advocate for the causes they support. In particular, H.R. 1 and S. 1 would impose onerous and unworkable regulatory standards on the ability of individual Americans and groups of Americans to discuss the policy issues of the day with elected officials and the public. This bill would also violate the privacy of advocacy groups and their supporters and stringently and excessively regulate political speech on the Internet.

  hr1, james madison center for free speech, kamala harris, kristin hawkins, thomas more law center, xavier becerra

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