News Story

Liberals, Democrats Question Conservatives’ Right to Equal Protection

Democratic legislator calls 'ludicrous’ comparison of free market donors' privacy rights to 1958 NAACP members

The Michigan Legislature has passed a bill that would protect donors to nonprofit organizations from having personal information and details of their contributions turned over to government agencies and posted on the internet.

Critics of Senate Bill 117 questioned the need for such a bill and ridiculed comparisons to a 1958 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that the state of Alabama could not demand a list of NAACP members. The Supreme Court ruled the demand violated the right of due process protected by in the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

In the current era, there is no dispute over the danger to members of the NAACP in 1958 when the Jim Crow-era government of Alabama demanded their names and addresses. But today it is mostly donors to conservative and free-market organizations who feel threatened by such demands for public disclosure. Yet comparisons to that Supreme Court ruling have brought forth scorn from Democratic politicians and liberal websites.

Among many examples, a 2016 story on the left-wing Mother Jones website was titled, “Dark-Money Groups: Hey, We’re Just Like ‘50s Civil Rights Activists in Alabama!” The subtitle read, “Supreme Court ruling helped protect the NAACP. Now it’s protecting fat-cat donors.”

Michigan Democrats echoed this attack this week when they lashed out at Mackinac Center for Public Policy’s David Guenthner, a senior strategist for state affairs who referenced the Alabama-NAACP ruling in his testimony before the House Committee on Michigan Competitiveness.

In response, Rep. Abdullah Hammoud, D-Dearborn, said he found the comparison ludicrous and extremely offensive, according to the Detroit Free Press.

Rep. Tenisha Yancey, D-Harper Woods, asked Guenthner if he knew of cases in which “people contributing to political campaigns have been hanged,” the Free Press reported.

Guenthner said he did not, but he could have described death threats received by his organization, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, in 2012.

Laura Campbell of Illinois admitted in court that she left numerous messages on the Mackinac Center’s voicemail system threatening to kill “all of you” and “bomb you.”

“Scotty Walker is dead. So are you,” one voice message said.

“We are going to just destroy you and take you down. We will destroy you. ... You are on Main Street. You are the first place to be bombed,” another message said.

And the Mackinac Center isn’t the only free-market nonprofit to be the target of death threats.

In 2016, U.S. District Court Judge Manuel Real cited death threats made to the nonprofit Americans for Prosperity Foundation when he denied demands by the state of California for the group to turn over its donor information.

Kamala Harris, then attorney general of California, was trying to get donor lists with individuals’ names and addresses from nonprofit organizations, including AFP.

While her office claimed that the donor list would be kept confidential, it was found to have published 1,778 documents with donor names and addresses on a website available to the public.

“Although the Attorney General correctly points out that such abuses are not as violent or pervasive as those encountered in NAACP v. Alabama or other cases from that era, this Court is not prepared to wait until an AFP opponent carries out one of the numerous death threats made against its members,” Real wrote.

The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Judge Real’s decision.

In addition to physical threats, nonprofit donors have other reasons to fear the government obtaining their data.

Chris Fink, CEO of AFP, said during the California case proceedings, donors were concerned that they could face retribution from the IRS if their names were released to the government. In 2017, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions admitted in a press release that the IRS had indeed targeted conservative nonprofits. Sessions said the IRS targeted hundreds of applications by nonprofits for additional scrutiny and delays and also requested donor information that he said was not needed to make a determination of tax-exempt status.