Facts of the Case
The California Attorney General’s office has a policy requiring charities to provide the state, on a confidential basis, information about their major donors, purportedly to help the state protect consumers from fraud and the misuse of their charitable contributions. Petitioner Americans for Prosperity (and the petitioner in the consolidated case, Thomas More Law Center) either failed to file or filed redacted lists of their major donors with the California Attorney General’s office, despite filing complete lists with the federal Internal Revenue Service, as required by federal law.
In response to demands by the California Attorney General that they file the lists, the organizations filed a lawsuit alleging that the filing requirement unconstitutionally burdened their First Amendment right to free association by deterring individuals from financially supporting them. The organizations provided evidence that although the state is required to keep donor names private, the state’s database was vulnerable to hacking, and many donor names were repeatedly released to the public. Based in part on this finding, the district court granted both organizations’ motions for a preliminary injunction and then ultimately found for them after a trial, holding that the organizations and their donors were entitled to First Amendment protection under the principles established in the Supreme Court’s decision in NAACP v. Alabama. In so holding, the court reasoned that the government’s filing demands were not the “least restrictive means” of obtaining the information and thus did not satisfy “strict scrutiny.”
A panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed, based on its conclusion that “exacting scrutiny” rather than “strict scrutiny” was the appropriate standard, and “exacting scrutiny” requires that the government show that the disclosure and reporting requirements are justified by a compelling government interest and that the legislation is narrowly tailored to serve that interest.
The Ninth Circuit denied the petition for a rehearing en banc.
Does the policy of the California attorney general’s office requiring charities to disclose the names and addresses of their major donors violate the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution?
California’s disclosure requirement is facially invalid because it burdens donors’ First Amendment rights and is not narrowly tailored to an important government interest. Chief Justice John Roberts authored the opinion of the Court.
Compelled disclosure of affiliation with groups engaged in advocacy is a type of restraint on freedom of association. Such a restraint is subject to “exacting scrutiny,” which requires “a substantial relation between the disclosure requirement and a sufficiently important governmental interest.” Though the government-mandated disclosure regime need not be the “least restrictive means” of achieving the government’s interest, it must be “narrowly tailored” to achieve it.
California’s disclosure requirement is “dramatically mismatch[ed]” to the state’s interest in preventing charitable fraud and self-dealing, imposing an unjustifiable “widespread burden on donors’ associational rights.”
Justice Clarence Thomas authored an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment. Justice Thomas would apply strict scrutiny to the disclosure requirement, leading to the same conclusion that it is facially invalid. However, Justice Thomas took issue with the Court’s opinion that the statute is unconstitutional in all applications.
Justice Samuel Alito authored an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, in which Justice Neil Gorsuch joined. Justice Alito disagreed with the majority that precedents establish that exacting scrutiny applies in these types of cases. He noted that the outcome is the same under either level of scrutiny, so he would not decide what level of scrutiny applies.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor authored a dissenting opinion, in which Justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan joined. Justice Sotomayor argued that the majority accepts, without requiring the plaintiffs to show, an actual First Amendment burden. In effect, Justice Sotomayor argued, the majority allows regulated entities to avoid obligations “by vaguely waving toward First Amendment ‘privacy concerns.’”
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