Who would have guessed the anti-slavery movement was once in danger of being intimidated out of existence? Throughout American history, politicians, policymakers and violent mobs have tried to expose donors in an attempt to intimidate and stop these organizations from exercising their right to speech and association.
One of the victims of this bullying tactic was the American Anti-Slavery Society (AASS). AASS was founded in 1833 by philanthropists Arthur and Lewis Tappan and Gerrit Smith, along with hundreds of donors across the country. According to Philanthropy Roundtable, to date, AASS is one of the most successful charitable organizations in U.S. history. Its mailers, flyers and traveling speakers significantly influenced Americans’ attitudes towards slavery and helped spark a moral uprising.
In 1835, AASS attempted to send several rounds of mass anti-slavery mailings to Charleston, but the mailers were stolen from the post office and burned. The Postmaster General, Amos Kendall wrote to President Andrew Jackson about the matter. In response, Jackson told Kendall to deliver the mailings only to those who would identify themselves as subscribers. Jackson then called for the names of such subscribers to be published in the newspaper as supporters of “exciting the negroes to insurrection and to massacre.” Jackson further stated he thought AASS members deserved “to atone for this wicked attempt with their lives.”
Not only did Jackson realize what a powerful impact AASS was having on slave policy, he also knew if subscribers’ names were made public, they would most likely be met with violence or even death, and would likely censor themselves.
As the old adage goes, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Donor disclosure is no exception. Today, whether the issue is climate change, abortion, civil rights or healthcare, Americans are actively involved in political causes and organizations. They put their money where their mouth is with donations to the issues they deem most important.
The First Amendment’s preservation of free speech and assembly encourages open public debate which is essential to the proper functioning of American democracy. Nonprofit organizations are a primary mechanism by which groups of people assemble to practice free speech, expressing their opinions on political and nonpolitical subjects. Many times, these organizations’ donors want to remain anonymous out of fear of violence. Just last week, UC Berkeley demonstrated fear of violence for simply speaking is real.
But what do Andrew Jackson and his pro-slavery surrogates have to do with donor privacy and free speech in 2017?
Today, proponents of donor disclosure argue this violation of privacy is necessary to ensure transparency. But these advocates conveniently ignore an important distinction between government transparency and private donor transparency.
Transparency is for the government; privacy is for the citizen. Government transparency is crucial because it enables the people to hold the government accountable. Government officials set public policy and therefore must be transparent with the American people about their activities and influences. Free speech is one of the means by which the people hold these officials accountable for their actions.
While non-profits can educate people on policy issues, they do not have the authority or the ability to actually make or change policy. Simply put, they cannot use the weight of the government to compel conduct.
Do not be fooled. Donor disclosure is really about chilling speech and association by silencing the voices of citizens through intimidation. It means a private citizen’s name and address end up on some government watch list because they chose to exercise their free speech rights.
Donor disclosure gives the government and opponents of the citizen’s views the ability to target individuals for their beliefs. It happened to members of the AASS in 1835, it happened to the NAACP in the 50’s and 60’s and sadly, this tactic is used once again in the 21st century.
Attempts to intimidate donors impacts all Americans—liberal, conservative, progressive and moderates alike. Whether one donates to Planned Parenthood or Susan B. Anthony List, the Brookings Institution or The Heritage Foundation, these donors must be able to exercise this right freely without fear of intimidation or retaliation.
Donor disclosure is not about transparency, it’s about intimidation. Andrew Jackson and his pro-slavery supporters knew as much. And so do those calling for donor disclosure.
It may be a different century, but it’s still the same intimidation game.
Shelby Emmett is an attorney and the Director for the Center to Protect Free Speech at the American Legislative Exchange Council.
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