'Secret Donors' Critical in Civil Rights Struggle

'Secret Donors' Critical in Civil Rights Struggle

Democrats have tried to blunt the political fallout of the IRS scandal by raising suspicions about the laws governing tax-exempt organizations. The laws allow these organizations to engage in public advocacy on issues, with some limited ability to do political work. They also have the right to keep membership lists and donors anonymous. 

During the IRS hearings, Democrats have suggested these laws allow “secret donors” to effect policy and should be curtailed. Our nation’s struggle for civil rights, however, is evidence for why groups need this anonymity. 

In the 1940s and 50s, Democrat Attorneys General in the South tried to force the NAACP to disclose its membership and donors. The KKK tried to gain access to NAACP membership lists. No doubt, Democrats of that time worried about “secret donors” effecting national policy. Given the climate of the time, it is obvious today that disclosing such information would have crippled the civil rights movement. 

The debate over donor and member anonymity culminated in landmark Supreme Court decisions. As quoted in Garde v. NRC:

In a series of cases beginning with NAACP v. Alabama,357 U.S. 449, 78 S.Ct. 1163, 2 L.Ed.2d 1488 (1958), the Supreme Court has held that, absent a compelling government interest, an organization could not constitutionally be compelled to identify the names of its members, agents, contributors, or recipients of contributions if it could be demonstrated that such disclosure would subject those identified to harassment or retaliation by virtue of their association.

Idealogical activists and donors don’t today face the same physical threats of violence confronting the civil rights pioneers. The emerging IRS scandal, however, shows that conservative donors and activists face a kind of legal violence. The invasive questions asked of conservative organizations seem designed to either intimidate them or discourage their activity. In fact, a number of organizations abandoned their pursuit of tax-exempt status as a result of the targeting. 

More troubling are reports that conservative organizations and donors were targeted for audits by the IRS, one of the government powers most feared. Even if these actions by the IRS turn out to be coincidental, there is a very real perception that they are politically motivated. This perception alone is enough to have a chilling effect on their civic engagement. 

During Tuesday’s hearing, John Eastman, whose organization opposing gay marriage, had confidential information leaked to opponents and the media, reminded Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-NY) how critical anonymity was during the fight for civil rights. Their exchange is illuminating and is posted below. 

The right to exchange in civic discourse privately or anonymously has been an important principle in our nation’s development. The Federalist Papers, which argued in favor of our proposed Constitution were, in fact, published anonymously. 

Democrats should not jeopardize that merely to gain political cover for a scandal.