The Supreme Court struck down California’s requirement that charities and nonprofits operating in the state provide the state attorney general’s office with the names and addresses of their largest donors.
In the 6-3 ruling released July 1, Chief Justice John Roberts, who wrote the majority opinion, stated that “the state’s interest in amassing sensitive information for its own convenience is weak,” arguing that the law was more about “ease of administration” in acquiring donor information and less about fighting nonprofit fraud. And in a footnote, he rebuked California, saying that “the state’s assurances of confidentiality are not worth much.”
In a concurring statement, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that California’s disclosure requirement violates the “privacy of association,” which stems from the First Amendment rights of freedom of assembly, and—by judicial interpretation—freedom of association.
In 2014, nonprofit organizations Americans for Prosperity and the Thomas More Law Center both sued then-California Attorney General Kamala Harris, arguing that the state’s donor disclosure law subjected their donors to significant reprisals by the public and often dissuaded further donations.
In January, the court consolidated the two cases under Americans for Prosperity’s petition.
And in March, First Liberty Institute filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case on behalf of Citizen Power Initiatives for China (CPIC), a nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing a peaceful transition to democracy in China. The brief further explained the damaging effects of California’s donor disclosure law, pointing out that for an organization like CPIC, donor privacy could be a literal matter of life and death. If CPIC’s donor information were made public, its donors would likely face reprisals by the Chinese government for carrying out their humanitarian work.
“The freedom to associate with others of like mind is indispensable to freedom,” said Kelly Shackelford, president, CEO and chief counsel for First Liberty Institute. “The Supreme Court recognized that the disclosure of names and address of citizens simply for belonging to a cause is chilling to the freedom of association. Cancel culture is bad enough without the government forcing organizations to reveal the names of their donors so they can be attacked.”
Since the case was filed in 2014, the defendant shifted from Harris to Xavier Becerra (California attorney general from 2017 to 2021), to Matthew Rodriquez (acting attorney general in 2021), to Rob Bonta, the state’s current attorney general.
Supreme Court Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan—the court’s three liberal-leaning justices—all dissented.