State governments have been intimidating nonprofits to disclose donors Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP

Good news for donor privacy and the First Amendment:

A federal judge has ruled that a nonprofit backed by conservative billionaires David and Charles Koch does not have to reveal its donors to Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris in a case that pitted state law governing charities against 1st Amendment rights.

U.S. District Judge Manuel Real, in a ruling issued Thursday, found that the Americans For Prosperity Foundation, a 501(c)(3) charity organization, can ignore Harris’ demand to turn over the names and addresses of those who have donated more than $5,000.

Such disclosure, Real wrote, “chills the exercise of [the group]’s 1st Amendment freedoms to speak anonymously and to engage in expressive association.”

David Beltran, a spokesman for Harris, said the attorney general will now take the case to the the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

The lawsuit was filed by the Arlington, Va.-based nonprofit in December 2014, after Harris’ office demanded the group submit its donor list or risk losing its state-sanctioned ability to raise money in California.

This isn’t the first time that governments have abused the power of subpoena to investigate right-of-center groups’ advocacy. Earlier this month, the libertarian Competitive Enterprise Institute received a similar order from the attorney general of the U.S. Virgin Islands to turn over a decades worth of internal communications about global warming. Last year, Montana enacted a law requiring nonprofits turn over extensive donor and expenditure information to the state government.

Should these government bullies win, future conservative and libertarian donors may second guess cutting a check to their favorite nonprofit should their political views be exposed to the public. Liberals may use concepts like “transparency” to justify such state intrusion, but they should beware in case the tables should turn.

Case in point: the NAACP. Back in the height of the Jim Crow South, the State of Alabama issued a subpoena demanding that the NAACP turn over its membership records. The nonprofit challenged the subpoena all the way up to the Supreme Court in 1958, and rightfully won.

The frightful reality is that government abuse is non-partisan. Democrats may use the monopoly of force to investigate Republicans when they’re in power (see: Lois Lerner and the IRS scandal), but nobody’s in power forever. It’s in all sides best interest to respect donor privacy and free speech.

The right to privately support a cause has been critical to accelerating social change like the Civil Rights Movement. Will the next righteous cause be squandered by government goons?

Casey Given About the author:
Casey Given is executive Director of Young Voices. Follow him on Twitter @caseyjgiven
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