Exposing Donations to Political Causes Can Chill Free Speech

Tammy Giuliani, the owner of Stella Luna Gelato Café in Ottawa, has learned a valuable lesson about privacy.

Giuliani gave $250 to Canada’s trucker’s convoy. The movement temporarily paralyzed Canada and gained international attention due to its protest against COVID-19 mandats. Hackers leaked details about Giuliani’s gift and many others to the media, resulting in harassment and threats towards donors. The threats forced the café to close.

Guiliani explained that a group decided to go across the country spreading the message of solidarity when they first started. It seemed like a beacon for small businesses, like ours. Ottawa Citizen. In retrospect, it was poor judgment. But does that make people have the right to threaten our employees? It does that mean someone can threaten to throw bricks through our window or to threaten my family?

These unfortunate events should teach Americans two important lessons. A healthy, stable society requires that citizens have the right to help causes in private and not be associated with them. Our communities cannot be emptied of businesses and people who disagree with us. If people who object to Black Lives Matter or the Tea Party harass every small business that supports these causes, we would soon live in a world with very few small businesses—or very little free speech. The privacy of donations allows anyone to support political causes, without having to sacrifice their ability to live and work in an inclusive community.

In 2021, the Supreme Court decided. Americans for Prosperity Foundation V. BontaThe effectiveness of group associations is undoubtedly beneficial in promoting both private and public points of views, even controversial. This case affirmed that Americans have the right to keep information about their members and support of causes and organizations secret from government officials.

Without donor privacy, the only people who are loudest and wealthiest can be heard. This is especially true in today’s internet age. It is possible to harness outrage faster than ever to attack individuals who would otherwise not have their names trending on Twitter.

A second, subtler lesson is the one that comes next. The United States has many laws that force public donor disclosure. Some laws such as the requirement for public reporting on donations to candidates are not controversial. However, we shouldn’t expand donor exposure to Americans supporting candidates and causes. The potential for harassment is real and serious. But it is also because we should never expand such donor exposure to include Americans backing candidates rather than causes.

Giuliani believed she was making a donation to support a grassroots campaign to end measures that had hurt her company. Two weeks after the donation was revealed, Canadians began to question their support for the convoy and began to view it as illegal occupation. Giuliani’s donation shows that there was a transaction, but not the nuance. A modest donation to an organisation rarely represents a well-informed, full-throated affirmation about everything the group stands for in the present and future. However, disclosure of a donation can be seen as a small gesture and is often viewed as an attack on the donor.

The same applies to all disclosure rules. Wisconsin Family Action is a nonprofit advocacy organization that sued the Federal Election Commission for its poorly-written disclosure rules. The group—represented by an organization I work for, the Institute for Free Speech—occasionally speaks about elections, but that is not its primary purpose, and many donors give for other reasons. This lawsuit is intended to clarify that donors only who are donating to the group’s political activities must be reported publicly, and not all those who give more than $200.

The Institute for Free Speech has provided a case summary.

An FEC rule that required contributors to support an ad opposing or endorsing a candidate for federal office was struck down by a 2018 court decision. This regulation has not been replaced by the FEC three years later. According to the Commission’s limited guidance, nonprofits might now have to report all donations that were not for political purposes.

The law’s broad interpretation could lead to the public being exposed the addresses and names of all donors who give less than $200 per year to any non-profit group spending just $250 on communication that supports the election of a candidate. This threat of widespread exposure by nonprofit donors has had a chilling impact on political speech.

Supreme Court precedent and the First Amendment limit government power to make a nonprofit’s supporters public. This lawsuit states that the government can only demand nonprofits such as WFA report donations to funds intended to support communications supporting the election or defeat. Americans are not entitled to support campaigns advocacy, but the overall mission of a nonprofit. The FEC has a vague disclosure policy.

Canada may have a hard time keeping donors’ privacy private, but the U.S. has an opportunity. Let’s all hope that the courts will allow private associations to keep their secrets.