There is broad public support for individual privacy protections. Especially in Mississippi, where independent polling of regular voters showed 81 percent supported legislation to protect privacy. Only a mere 11 percent would oppose “a law in Mississippi that protects the personal information of individuals who donate to causes and charities of their choice.”
This 11 percent was well coordinated when they tried to shut down H.B. 1205 — a bill we introduced, and the privacy protections it provides to protect the charitable giving of all Mississippians. This attack isn’t just an attack on the bill, it’s an attack on the principles of free speech.
This now law — thanks to Gov. Phil Bryant — protects charitable organizations and individuals from the government requesting their private information. For government agencies already possessing private information, this law requires that agency receive written consent from the individual before releasing any information. It also doesn’t upend the federal tax code, which is important for the existing structure of charitable organizations.
But most importantly, this law protects those who might have their private information targeted and revealed without their consent. Publicizing information about private charitable giving makes people give less to charity. But providing restitution will rightfully combat the efforts of those interested in making your information public. These public reveals chill the free expression of individuals.
Contributing to charitable causes in America is important. But an individual’s privacy is just as important — if not more important. Most people give consistent to things they’re passionate about: The horticultural society, the animal shelter or the softball league.
But what if someone gave to a non-profit abortion clinic? What if they gave to a pro-life organization or to the Catholic Church? What if they supported a think tank that published something you disliked?
All these problems are real. The public revealing of private information by agencies and individuals isn’t something new. The landmark U.S. Supreme Court case NAACP v. Alabama is probably the best-known example for this issue.
Alabama state government agencies put private donor information out publicly in the 1950s. These individuals were freely expressing themselves with donations to a charitable cause they believed in. But the power of government was pointed against them. Private phone numbers, home addresses and other personal pieces of information were shared. Those who wanted to do harm could now do so much more easily. Fortunately, the Supreme Court’s ruling stopped the government agency.
But really, these abuses in America date all the way back to the Founding era. Think back to the Federalist Papers in 1788. They were written to explain what the government can do, while the Bill of Rights shows what the government can’t do. It was dangerous to support a new, centralized government when the people had just won their independence from the British centralized government.
So the writers of the Federalist Papers — Hamilton, Madison and Jay — withheld their names from publication when they ran their articles. They used the pseudonym “Publius” so those arguing against them couldn’t rely on personal attacks or revealing private information, because Publius was no one.
Even with the protective provisions from the Founding era, and the Supreme Court ruling against these actions, instances where individuals have had their private information made public are just as prevalent today.
In 2014, the CEO and co-founder of Mozilla, Brendan Eich, stepped down after it was brought to light that he had donated some of his private money to a cause he believed in. There were many in Silicon Valley who didn’t agree with his beliefs. They promoted boycotts to Mozilla. If he had stayed on as CEO, the company would have continued to lose revenue.
This isn’t an isolated story. Target’s CEO fell victim to the same pressure after a data breach in 2014. These reveals disrupt the privacy rights of individuals and they bring the dangerous court of public opinion in to play. For example, in 2013 after the tragic Boston bombing, “experts” on Reddit and Twitter pointed to the “perpetrators” and had their information revealed — they were harassed. It turned out these individuals were not the perpetrators.
Individual private information has already been inappropriately released to attack people during the Founding era, Sixty years ago, and it continues into modern times. These are real problems that this law addresses with real solutions.
Other states will be facing these same issues. We can’t let the court of public opinion become justice. The debate is either for government lists of people and their beliefs, or against. We must ask: Do you want to be on a government list like this?
• Jerry Turner and Mark Baker are members of the Mississippi House of Representatives. They are co-authors of HB 1205, a privacy protections bill.