Federal judge set to hear arguments in challenge to San Francisco donor disclosure rules

On Feb. 14, Judge Charles Breyer of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California will hear arguments in a challenge to donor disclosure requirements that San Francisco voters approved in 2019.

Who are the parties to the suit? The plaintiffs are “Yes on Prop B,” a committee advocating for the passage of a bond issue to fund earthquake safety and emergency services in San Francisco, and its treasurer, Todd David. The defendant is the consolidated city and county government of San Francisco.

What is at issue? On Nov. 5, 2019, San Francisco voters approved Proposition F, establishing the following donor disclosure requirements for all committees producing campaign advertisements supporting or opposing any candidate for city office or any city ballot initiative:

  • Printed advertisements must include a disclaimer with the names and contribution amounts of the committee’s top three donors.
  • Audio and video advertisements must include a spoken disclaimer at the beginning of the advertisement listing the committee’s top three donors.
  • In any case where a top-three contributor is a secondary independent committee, the advertisement (print, audio, or video) must also disclose the identities of the top two donors to the secondary committee.

These requirements apply to contributors giving $5,000 or more to a committee.

What are the plaintiffs’ allegations? The plaintiffs allege the requirements violate their First Amendment rights “by requiring their core political speech to carry disclaimers that will consume significant portions of those communications and in some cases entirely consume those communications.” The plaintiffs have asked the court to bar enforcement of the rules: “The new disclaimer rules effectively drown out plaintiffs’ message on their selected forms of communication, making their participation in the March election infeasible unless the new disclaimer rules are enjoined.”

What are the reactions? John Cote, a spokesman for City Attorney Dennis Herrera, said, “We are defending this ballot measure consistent with First Amendment law.” Jon Golinger, director of Sunlight on Dark Money, the campaign that supported Proposition F, said, “This lawsuit is designed to keep voters in the dark so that secretive Super PACs can hide the real agenda behind their campaign ads.”

Case information: Breyer was appointed to the court by President Bill Clinton (D). The case name and number are Yes on Prop B v. San Francisco, 3:20-cv-00630-CRB.

What we’re reading

The big picture

Number of relevant bills by state: We’re currently tracking 41 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.

Disclosure Digest map February 10, 2020.png

Number of relevant bills by current legislative status

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Number of relevant bills by partisan status of sponsor(s)

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Recent legislative actions

Below is a complete list of legislative actions taken on relevant bills since our last issue. Bills are listed in alphabetical order, first by state then by bill number.

  • Oklahoma SB1491: This bill would prohibit public agencies from requiring 501(c) entities to furnish them with personal information about donors.
    • Referred to Senate Judiciary Committee on Feb. 6.
  • Tennessee is currently considering four substantively similar donor disclosure bills that would prohibit public agencies from requiring 501(c) entities to furnish them with personal information about donors.
    • HB2396 (companion to SB2293): Introduced Feb. 5.
    • HB2665 (companion to SB2886): Introduced Feb. 5.
    • SB2293 (companion to HB2396): Introduced Feb. 6.
    • SB2886 (companion to HB2665): Introduced Feb. 6.