01 October 2015

Donor Privacy Focus of Supreme Court Case Supported by The Philanthropy Roundtable

In early September, The Philanthropy Roundtable filed an amicus brief supporting a petition to the Supreme Court for a writ of certiorari to review the judgment of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in a donor privacy case from the state of California. The case, Center for Competitive Politics v. Harris, focuses on the demand of that state’s attorney general that all Form 990 submissions made to satisfy the filing requirements of California’s charitable solicitation rules include an unredacted Schedule B. Schedule B includes the names, addresses, and contribution amounts of all major donors. The Schedule B is submitted to the IRS on a confidential basis, and federal law prohibits the agency from releasing this information to anyone. Similar privacy protections do not exist in California. An editorial in the Washington Examiner expounded on this point.

“There is no reason for California to demand details about donors unless public officials plan to harass donors. It is reasonable to assume this is [attorney general Kamala] Harris’s probable purpose. There is no statute requiring it; it’s something that the attorney general, who happens to be a candidate for Senate, demanded on her own.”

The Manhattan Institute’s Howard Husock, writing in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, raised concern over the precedent set by justifying the violation of donor privacy in the interest of “generalized law-enforcement interests.”

“It is one thing for state officials, having been alerted to the possibility of wrongdoing, to request otherwise confidential records. It’s quite another to maintain files of all donors just in case some reason for suspicion might, at some point, arise.”

Our amicus brief reflects our core belief in philanthropic freedom – the right of Americans to choose how and where to spend their charitable assets – and our commitment to safeguard the freedom of donors and private foundations to carry out their diverse charitable goals and missions, in order to preserve their distinctive contributions. Donor privacy and confidentiality are essential to a vibrant civil society, and unwarranted state incursions into private charitable giving will chill the exercise of First Amendment freedoms which insure that donors may give even to controversial philanthropic causes—such as the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s —without fear of harassment and reprisal. Donor privacy also protects those who choose to give anonymously for a variety of good reasons, including deeply held moral or religious beliefs, a sense of humility, a wish to lead a more private life, and the desire to minimize solicitations from other organizations.

We will track the progress of the case and give you updates as soon as they become available.