The Supreme Court could decide as early as Monday whether to review a California law that forces nonprofits to disclose donors to the state attorney general, testing the bounds of state government authority and privacy rights.
The Christian-centric public interest law firm Thomas More Law Center, which brought the case, argues that California’s attorney general has shown an inability to protect the information from disclosure and that forcing nonprofits to turn over donor lists would not only invade privacy but also expose them to retribution, such as doxxing.
“Normally in the United States, you don’t have to tell the government what you do — what causes you support,” said Brad Smith, chairman and founder of the Institute for Free Speech.
The high court was scheduled to discuss the case in conference last week. It would take at least four justices to agree to take up the case.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit last year upheld California’s rules, saying the nonprofits already had to report the same information to the IRS, so reporting it to the state is acceptable. Besides, the appeals court said, the risk of disclosure by the state is small.
The Thomas More Law Center disputed that, pointing to negligent disclosure of nearly 2,000 IRS forms, including one with the names of Planned Parenthood supporters. The office of the state’s attorney general “leaks confidential records like a sieve,” the group argued.
California’s attorney general argued in court papers that the high court shouldn’t review the case because the state’s law mirrors requirements federal government mandates, specifically requiring nonprofits to disclose major donors in a form to the IRS.
“To safeguard against abuse of this tax-exempt status and other wrongdoing, federal and state laws require charitable organizations to submit information about their finances to oversight agencies,” the attorney general said.
But if the law is allowed to stand, it could embolden other state legislators, Mr. Smith said, noting there are dozens of similar donor disclosure laws pending in states across the country.
He said California has one of the strictest requirements.
Critics say disclosure can lead to harassment, which could stifle groups’ ability to exercise their First Amendment rights.
Mr. Smith said some donors, once their identity is known, are subject to online bullying, protesters descending on homes, and even employers having to terminate employees for business reasons.
Patrice Onwuka, a senior fellow with Alliance for Charitable Excellence, said donors want to remain anonymous for many reasons, but once they know their personal information is public, it could impact nonprofits’ funding because they may be less willing to give.
“In a political environment that is very divisive, you could have this doxxing movement,” Ms. Onwuka said.
In August, Rep. Joaquin Castro released dozens of names of Trump supporters online, doxxing donors to the president.
The Texas Democrat, who helped run his brother Julian Castro’s presidential campaign, was widely criticized for putting his constituents in danger of harassment, and at least one of the individuals identified received a vulgar voicemail.