Giving to charities should not put you at risk of harm

By Becki Gray

Raleigh, NC – We are a generous and giving people. We exercise our First Amendment rights to support causes and ideas we believe in by donating our hard-earned money. But some actions by the federal government threaten those rights and state lawmakers are prepared to act now to protect North Carolinians’ freedom of speech.

Americans gave $449 Billion to charities in 2019, 69% from individual donors.

photo by Joel Muniz

As you would expect, wealthy people give but the vast majority of giving comes from average folks with moderate incomes, just like you and me. Sixty percent of American households support causes they believe in, giving between $2,000 – $3,000 each year.

North Carolina ranks 14th in charitable giving according to WalletHub’s Most Charitable States for 2021. North Carolinians gave $45 million to nearly 40,000 charities in our state last year, according to the 2019-20 NC Charitable Solicitation Licensing Annual Report.  Keep in mind that is more than the previous year and during the early, and economically uncertain days of the pandemic.

Donating to charities is a way many of us support causes we believe in. Non-profit organizations play an important role in advocating, educating, and leading discussions on ideas to promote a civil society, whether it’s groups like The John Locke Foundation, ACLU, Sierra Club, or the National Rifle Association. Charities serve their communities’ special needs, often supplementing what government does or filling needs it can’t do; everything from the faith-based community to the Humane Society, to Toys for Tots, Food Banks to the arts. Non-profits give voice to the communities they serve and allow us to lend greater influence through a collective voice of supporters. We are all richer when those who chose to, give.

Giving is a way to exercise freedom of speech and that freedom is protected under the First Amendment of our Constitution.

Or is it?

During the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s, Alabama tried to force the NAACP to report the names and addresses of its supporters. The NAACP feared that should their donors’ information be disclosed, they would be subject to harassment, intimidation, and violence. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed and ruled that donations to private organizations can remain private to protect those donors’ safety.

But lately and in these times when everything seems politcized, those protections are at risk.

In 2015 in Colorado Springs CO, a Planned Parenthood clinic was the site of a shooting that killed three people and wounded nine others. The shooter was against women’s reproductive rights. Imagine if the law in Colorado had required Planned Parenthood to publish the names and addresses of their supports and that man had known who they were and where they lived.

Margie Christoffen was a waitress in California. As a private citizen, she gave $100 to a group that supported a ballot initiative to ban gay marriage. She never made her politics or religious views public, but her donation showed up on a government list and her name was made public. The restaurant where she worked was picketed and boycotted, protestors caused disruption to the restaurant’s business. She lost her job. Others on “the list” reported harassing calls, emails, and mailings. One email threatened to contact the parents of students where a supporter worked. Others received death threats, were forced to resign their jobs, lost customers, and found their businesses boycotted. California has disclosure laws that have subjected citizens to harassment and targeted threats simply for exercising their First Amendment rights.

The Peachtree-Pine homeless shelter in Atlanta houses more than 600 men, women, and children each night. They provide a wide range of services, including finding permanent shelter for homeless individuals and families.  Atlanta officials had targeted the shelter for closure, planning to seize the land to build a police/fire station on the site. In 2014, the shelter fell behind on its water bill and several anonymous donors contributed enough towards the $580,000 bill to pay it off. The shelter’s director explained why the donors wished to remain anonymous: “Any time a donor appears and is public with us, that donor gets attacked.”

Would you be as likely to give if your name and donation were disclosed without your knowledge?

Should a donation to something you believe in subject you to harassment, job loss, being “canceled,” or even threatening you and your family’s safety and well-being?

H.R. 1, a lengthy bill introduced in Congress would force disclosure of donors to a nonprofit organization. Across the country, 200 bills have been introduced in state legislatures that would violate citizen privacy by forcing disclosure of small-dollar donors. NC should enact protections against donor disclosure now.

Your donation should be kept private, and your First Amendment rights should be protected. That’s what a bipartisan group of lawmakers in the General Assembly are trying to do – protect citizen privacy. Senate Bill 636 would make non-profit donor information confidential and prohibit public servants, legislators, and state employees from disclosing confidential information gained in the course of their official activities.

In a national poll, people agreed, donor privacy is important. Seventy-three percent of registered voters agree the government has no right to know what groups or organizations they decide to support. SB636 has bipartisan support because this is not a partisan issue. Eighty-one percent of Republicans and 93% of Democrats believe we must protect the ability of all Americans to come together in support of each other’s right to donor privacy.

The Bottom Line

With donor privacy, people are able to give to causes they believe in without the threat that their personal beliefs will be made public without their consent. They ought not to live in fear of harassment or intimidation just because they exercise their freedom of speech. People should not be discouraged from giving and the important work that non-profits do should not be discouraged or hampered.

The role of government is to protect freedom, not take it away. Every American and every North Carolinian has the right to support causes they believe in without fear of retribution, intimidation, threats, or harassment. Freedom of speech and First Amendment rights should be protected regardless of perspective or background. We are fortunate to have leaders who recognize the need for citizen privacy and are working this legislative session to protect our rights. We are all richer for it.