Thursday, February 25, 2021
Exciting times in the world of nonprofit law, as the Supreme Court will soon decide a case with potentially significant implications for regulation of nonprofits. Nonprofits challenge the constitutionality of a California law that requires the organizations to provide their unredacted Form 990 – including Schedule B’s list of major donors – to the State as a condition of soliciting donations in the state.
The petitioners/plaintiffs – conservative organizations Thomas More Law Society and Americans for Prosperity Foundation -- cite the risk of the information being publicly disclosed by the state and the fear their donors possess of being harassed if their support for these organizations is made public. The plaintiffs rely heavily on the NAACP v. Alabama case from the 1950s, where the Supreme Court struck down an Alabama ruling that required the NAACP to publicly disclose its members, finding that such a disclosure would pose significant challenges to the ability to associate to advocate against oppression. Petitioners do argue that their donors may be less willing to donate and may face reprisal if their identities are known, but they do not and cannot argue that they face the same levels of risk that members of the NAACP faced in the 1950s South. The analogy is further strained by the fact that California has promised not to publicly disclose the identity of major donors, which further reduces the risk to associational rights.
The government, in contrast, cites to Citizens United and Doe v. Reed, which blessed laws requiring disclosure of donors in election-related contexts as a way of supplying the electorate information on which to judge the messages we’re hearing. Yet California’s law isn’t triggered by election-related speech as in Doe and Citizens United. Instead, it is triggered by charitable solicitation for any cause, and applies broadly to organizations across the nonprofit spectrum.
Relying on precedent, the 9th Circuit rejected out of hand the plaintiffs’ facial challenge to California’s law. And finding that the plaintiffs failed to prove their case (rejecting the district court’s factual findings to the contrary), the 9th Circuit also rejected the plaintiffs’ as-applied challenge to the disclosure requirement. The Second Circuit had reached a similar conclusion in a challenge to an analogous provision in New York’s law, and there wasn’t a split on this narrow point. Yet the Supreme Court agreed to take the case, which will be argued towards the end of this term. There are a lot of vulnerabilities in the case for California (such as unfavorable factual findings by the district court, a sloppy regulatory canvas (for example, not enshrining the rule against public disclosure in statute)), but a loss for California could have ramifications well beyond California and well beyond the specific mandate challenged here.
While the entire case is complex, here are some of the questions that the Court might find it necessary to address:
- What is the standard of review: Is it strict scrutiny, intermediate scrutiny, “exacting” scrutiny, or something else entirely?
- Is the case best decided as a facial or as-applied challenge? Does it matter?
- Is a constitutional analysis only required upon a threshold associational showing of a risk of threats/violence/harassment/something else, or does it apply even in the absence of this predicate showing?
- Assuming that the mode of analysis is, or is similar in structure to, strict/exacting/intermediate scrutiny, what are valid government interests that would justify the compelled disclosure, and what level of proof is needed? Conversely, what are the relevant associational interests at stake, and what level of proof is needed?
- Does the rule change depending on the content area of the association’s speech (political v. ballot initiative v. lobbying v. other)? The parties seem keen to use content of speech (election-related versus something else) as a dividing line.
- What effect, if any, does the fact that these organizations already provide this information to the IRS have on their challenge? (For example, does the constitutional analysis change depending on whether the compelled disclosure is in the context of granting tax exemption (the IRS requirement) versus engaging in charitable solicitation (California rule)?
Joseph W Mead