JUNK DISCLOSURE: H 7147A Puts Donor Privacy at Risk

Real campaign finance reform fairly discloses those who contribute to a political campaign. New “junk disclosure” laws would unfairly expose to political retribution, many donors to non-political activities of non-political charitable organizations.

H7147A, sponsored by Reps Edwards, Canario, Messier, Hearn, and Newberry, passed the House Judiciary committee and is scheduled for a full floor vote March 23. H 7147 (and its companion Senate bill – S 2369  sponsored by Joshua Miller – would mandate such ‘junk disclosure’ and is not a good bill.

According to some national legal scholars, the bill is likely unconstitutional. The U.S. Supreme court has affirmed the privacy rights of donors who give to the “primary purpose” of 501(c)(3) nonprofits. These two bills would violate this legal precedent.

For nonprofit organizations like our Center and 501(c)(3)s, this bill could have chilling effects. There is a fundamental difference between the need for “transparency” for public government or elections for public office … and the right to protect the “privacy” of donors to private nonprofits who merely weigh in on policy issues.

Money spent by (c)(3)s on ballot measures is already reported. First, remember that a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization cannot contribute to a candidate or candidate committee, only to ballot measures and only if they report those contribution to the IRS. If a 501(c)(3) contributes to a municipal charter amendment, they already have to report that information to the IRS and they have to report those specific supporting donors to the RI Board of Elections – there is no lack of transparency. 

H 7147 would unfairly expand reporting of completely unrelated donors. It would require any 501(c)(3) that spent $100 or more talking about financial town referenda, meetings, or other municipal charter amendments to report ALL of its donors who give $100 or more.

For example, if our Center wanted to spend $100 on a mailer in support of an amendment to a municipal charter (which is perfectly within our allowances with the IRS), we would have to reveal the name of anyone who gave us more than $100 in the previous year, even if those donations weren’t in support of the ballot measure.

The $100 threshold sets a hair-trigger on disclosure requirements so that even incidental speech about municipal issues could set in motion dangerous reporting requirements. This bill is not tailored to exposing the major players in local politics; H 7147 also sweeps in those who say nothing at all about municipal issues.

This law is overly broad and will result in people being associated with funding campaigns that they may literally have nothing to do with. You can imagine, for example, a person supporting the Lung Cancer Alliance with a $100 gift in response to a campaign to help prevent teenage smoking. But, if the Lung Cancer Alliance decides to contribute to a municipal charter amendment that would ban e-cigarettes, even if the person has not agreed to allow her money to be spent on that initiative, her name would be listed as a donor associated with that campaign.

This isn’t real campaign disclosure, it’s “junk disclosure” that actually gives people false information about donors that have nothing to do with the issue at hand, and serves only to harm nonprofits and their donors.

Understanding who is spending money to influence elections is one thing, but the broad way that these bills are written would invade the privacy of people who are supporting regular charitable work and not trying to influence elections at all.

Every American has the right to support causes they believe in without fear of harassment or intimidation. Giving to the government the names and addresses of people who support general charities will invade people’s privacy and expose them to recrimination for their beliefs.