10 January 2017

The Philanthropy Roundtable Petitions Supreme Court to Uphold Donor Privacy

WASHINGTON, D.C.— The Philanthropy Roundtable filed an amicus brief Monday in the case Independence Institute v. Federal Election Commission urging the Supreme Court of the United States  to uphold donor privacy and free speech for 501(c)3 charities.

“Many philanthropists value the freedom to keep their giving private for important religious, historical, cultural, and practical reasons,” said Sean Parnell, vice president for public policy at the Roundtable. “The Philanthropy Roundtable urges the Supreme Court to preserve this freedom and reject efforts to pry open the donor lists of nonprofits that are not engaged in election-related speech.”

In the fall of 2014 the Independence Institute, a nonpartisan 501(c)3 charity, wanted to run radio ads urging citizens to contact their two U.S. senators and ask them to support a sentencing reform bill then before Congress. Because the ads included the name of a federal candidate less than sixty days before the election, federal campaign finance law demanded the disclosure of the name, address, and amount given of any donor to support the Institute’s ad campaign. The organization dropped the effort rather than violate the privacy and free speech rights of its donors but filed a lawsuit challenging the law originally intended for political committees and campaigns but applied in this instance to public charities. A three-judge District Court panel eventually ruled in 2016 that Independence Institute would be subject to the disclosure law.

“The Independence Institute should not be forced to choose between remaining silent on issues of public importance or subjecting its donors to harassment and retribution by those who do not share its views. The Supreme Court should uphold the important privacy rights of donors that have been recognized since 1958 in NAACP v. Alabama,” Parnell said.

Unlike past challenges to disclosure rules, this case presents a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization—barred by the tax law from any electoral advocacy—seeking to run ads that clearly advocate for policy choices, not electoral outcomes. The brief reflects the Roundtable’s core belief in philanthropic freedom—the right of Americans to choose how and where to spend their charitable assets—and its commitment to safeguard the freedom of donors and private foundations to carry out their diverse charitable goals and missions. 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 and Fourteenth Amendment freedoms, as evidenced in this case.

Independence Institute v. Federal Election Commission is on the Supreme Court’s appellate docket and therefore it will be ruled on by the Court. The full amicus brief can be found here.