Supreme Court Strikes Down Disclosure Rules for Political Donors

July 1, 2021 by Dan McCue
The U.S. Supreme Court. (Photo by Dan McCue)

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court on Thursday struck down a California law that required nonprofits to disclose lists of their biggest donors, holding the requirement burdened donors’ First Amendment rights and was not narrowly tailored to an important government interest.

In a 6-3 ruling authored by Chief Justice John Roberts, the court said California had subjected donors to the threat of public harassment and intimidation, undermining their First Amendment right to free association.

The California law at the center of the litigation required nonprofits to give the state a list of their biggest donors every year. In theory, under the law, the state was supposed to keep that information private, but according to briefs filed in the case the state has often made donors names and addresses available to the general public.

Americans for Prosperity and other conservative nonprofits sued, saying California’s pattern of making donor information public actually put individual donors in physical danger — especially in the current, highly charged political climate.

The ACLU and the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund joined the case on the side of the conservative groups, arguing that California’s pattern of donor disclosure was comparable to methods used in the 1950s and 1960s to intimidate civil rights activists and others.

California, meanwhile, argued that collecting the information was simply a way to prevent potential election fraud.

In response, Roberts wrote that “[w]e do not doubt that California has an important interest in preventing wrongdoing by charitable organizations” there “is a dramatic mismatch … between the interest that the attorney general seeks to promote and the disclosure regime that he has implemented in service of that end.”

The chief justice went on to say there “was not ‘a single concrete instance in which pre-investigation collection of [information] did anything to advance the attorney general’s investigative, regulatory, or enforcement efforts.”

“In reality, then, California’s interest is less in investigating fraud and more in ease of administration. This interest, however, cannot justify the disclosure requirement,” he wrote.

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