On Nov. 21, 2019, two nonprofit groups – the Gaspee Project and the Illinois Opportunity Project – filed suit in U.S. District Court, alleging that a Rhode Island law requiring issue advocacy groups to disclose personal information about their donors to the public violates donors’ free-speech and privacy rights.
Who are the parties to the suit? The plaintiffs are two nonprofit groups: the Gaspee Project and the Illinois Opportunity Project, both 501(c)(4) organizations subject to the challenged law. They are represented by the Liberty Justice Center. The defendants are Diane Mederos, Stephen Erickson, Jennifer Johnson, Richard Pierce, Isadore Ramos, David Sholes, and William West, all members of the Rhode Island Board of Elections.
What is at issue? The law in question (H7859, enacted in 2012) requires issue advocacy groups to disclose to the public personal information about their donors who contribute more than $1,000. Groups must report the donor’s name, job title, employer, home address, and donation amount. This information is then posted to a government website. The law also requires that, in the weeks leading up to an election, groups publish the names of their top five contributors on any advertising or messages.
What are the arguments? Daniel R. Suhr, an attorney for the Liberty Justice Center, said, “This case is about freedom of speech and association. We think the marketplace of ideas operates best when we have the most robust conversation and people can controversial things without fear of retaliation. From the beginning of our nation, our country has had a proud tradition of anonymous speech in the public square. And that stems from a commitment to focusing on ideas, rather than who is paying for the message.”
Austin Graham, legal counsel for the Campaign Legal Center, which supports the Rhode Island law, said, “It’s about providing voters with more information to fully evaluate political advertising and messaging, which in turn allows them to fully participate in the democratic process. It’s the marketplace of ideas. Informed decisions in the political marketplace, like the economic marketplace, depend on the free flow of information about sources of political messages supporting or opposing candidates.”
Have other courts ruled on the constitutionality of similar laws? On Sept. 30, Judge Denise Cote, of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, 2016 law requiring 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4) groups to disclose personal information about their donors in select circumstances. Under the New York law, 501(c)(3) groups were required to disclose the identities of donors who contributed more than $2,500 in a calendar year if the 501(c)(3) group made in-kind contributions to a 501(c)(4) group that engaged in lobbying activity. 501(c)(4) groups were required to disclose the identities of donors who contributed more than $1,000 if the 501(c)(4) group spent $10,000 or more per calendar year on covered communications (i.e., communications that advocate for or against an identified elected official).
On Oct. 2., Judge Brian R. Martinotti, of the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey, enjoined the state from enforcing its donor disclosure law, adopted on June 17, while litigation is underway. Under the New Jersey law, 501(c)(4) and 527 entities that spend $3,000 or more annually to influence or provide political information about the outcome of any election or policy proposal must disclose the identities of their donors who contribute $10,000 or more.
Case information: The case name and number are Gaspee Project et al. v Mederos et al., 1:19-cv-00609. The suit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Rhode Island. The presiding judge is Mary McElroy, who was appointed to the court by Donald Trump (R).
What we’re reading
- The Boston Globe, “Both sides brandish First Amendment in battle over Rhode Island donor disclosure law,” Dec. 16, 2019
- New Jersey Globe, “Lawmakers Still Looking To Cleanup Dark Money Bill,” Dec. 16, 2019
- Santa Fe New Mexican, “Groups sue Toulouse Oliver over donor disclosure,” Dec. 16, 2019
- The Fulcrum, “Conservatives sue in Rhode Island to avoid donor disclosure,” Nov. 25, 2019
The big picture
Number of relevant bills by state: We’re currently tracking 74 pieces of legislation dealing with donor disclosure. On the map below, a darker shade of green indicates a greater number of relevant bills. Click here for a complete list of all the bills we’re tracking.
Number of relevant bills by current legislative status
Number of relevant bills by partisan status of sponsor(s)
Recent legislative actions
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