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Supreme Court Delivers Major Victory for Americans’ Free Speech Rights

Jul 1, 2021 by AFPF

Americans For Prosperity Foundation v. Bonta decision protects people’s ability to join causes without fear of becoming political targets

WASHINGTON, DC—Today, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld people’s First Amendment rights in AFPF v Bonta. The case brought together nearly 300 groups — including the ACLU, NAACP, Human Rights Campaign, Becket Fund, PETA, and Institute for Justice — representing a diversity of perspectives and representing a range of issues including health, faith, civil rights, and racial justice, among others. The Court ruled that when a state “casts a dragnet for sensitive donor information from tens of thousands of charities each year, even though that information will become relevant in only a small number of cases,”  it creates an unacceptable risk to those people’s right to join together with one another and violates the privacy necessary to protect that right.

Americans for Prosperity Foundation applauds the decision and what it means for non-profits across the country and the millions of Americans who support them.

“Today’s decision protects Americans from being forced to choose between staying safe or speaking up,” said AFPF CEO Emily Seidel. “The ability to maintain one’s privacy makes it possible for people to join together in causes and movements. Especially given how polarized our country has become, the work of addressing injustice and advocating for change is hard enough without people facing fear of harassment and retaliation from the government and from potentially violent opposition. This right to come together with one another was critical for the success of the Civil Rights movement, marriage equality, and – as the Court’s decision affirms – it remains critical today.”

This is a win for all Americans. By finding that California’s demand is unconstitutional on its face, the Court protects not only the plaintiff but millions of others who support groups engaged on art, human rights, education, religion, and civic life, among others. As the Court noted: 

The gravity of the privacy concerns in this context is further underscored by the filings of hundreds of organizations as amici curiae in support of the petitioners. Far from representing uniquely sensitive causes, these organizations span the ideological spectrum, and indeed the full range of human endeavors: from the American Civil Liberties Union to the Proposition 8 Legal Defense Fund; from the Council on American-Islamic Relations to the Zionist Organization of America; from Feeding America—Eastern Wisconsin to PBS Reno. The deterrent effect feared by these organizations is real and pervasive, even if their concerns are not shared by every single charity operating or raising funds in California. 

The facial invalidation is appropriate, because California’s requirement “indiscriminately sweep[s] up the information of every major donor with reason to remain anonymous.” The ruling upholds everyone’s equal right to freely associate. 

AFPF first brought the case to protect the rights of all Americans to support non-profits free from fear of intimidation by the government or those who disagree with them. Contrary to some claims this decision has nothing to do with political campaign contributions. As the American Civil Liberties Union’s Brian Hauss made clear after April’s arguments, “This case is worlds apart from the campaign finance context.” Instead, today’s ruling reaffirms that these basic liberties are critical to continued progress. The Court’s opinion is a clear message that the First Amendment protects people’s right to speak out about issues and disagree with those in power.

Below is roundup of what other notable organizations have said about the case:

  • [Now], as much as any time in our nation’s history, it is necessary for individuals to be able to express and promote their viewpoints through associational affiliations without personally exposing themselves to a political firestorm or even governmental retaliation.” — Excerpt from the amicus brief by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Freedom to Read Foundation, National Coalition Against Censorship, and other free speech organizations
  • If the State could categorically demand disclosure of associational information, the ability of citizens to organize to defend values out of favor with the majority would be seriously diminished.” — Excerpt from the amicus brief by American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Knight First Amendment Institute, Human Rights Campaign, and PEN America
  • “[Expanding] the scope of this Court’s campaign-finance-disclosure jurisprudence beyond its historical limits of speech related to political campaigns … sweeps in a vast amount of protected First Amendment activity that has nothing to do with political campaigns.” — Excerpt from the amicus brief by the Institute for Justice
  • With the political winds of state attorney general offices shifting from term to term, fears of threats, harassment, reprisals, and even political targeting by government for advocacy on issues of social, economic, religious, and political importance shift as well, and such risks are especially worrisome for controversial issues unpopular at the time.” — Excerpt from the amicus brief by Charity Navigator, The Nonprofit Alliance Foundation, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), Animal Legal Defense Fund, Doctors Without Borders, Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE), and Southern Poverty Law Center, and more than 120 other organizations representing the nation’s $1.05 trillion nonprofit field and its contributions to feeding the needy, aiding the poor, protecting wildlife, enriching our arts and cultural lives, and leading our nation’s churches, mosques, and synagogues

For further information or questions, reach Lorenz Isidro at LIsidro@afphq.org or 703-887-7724. 

Americans for Prosperity Foundation (AFPF) works in communities and alongside partners to provide educational programs and resources on the toughest issues facing our country, including free markets, civil liberties, immigration reform, and constitutionally limited government. For more information, please visit AmericansForProsperityFoundation.org.