2024 Leg Session, Elections, Featured, Free Speech, Jena Griswold, Sherrie Peif

Bipartisan bill codifies donor privacy for Colorado non-profits

DENVER — In a true show of bipartisanship, Republican and Democrat lawmakers from the extremes of their parties are coming together to assure that Coloradans are free to donate to any non-profit they desire without fear of public disclosure and retribution.

Senate Bill 24-129, titled “Non-Profit Member Data Privacy & Public Agencies” is being sponsored in the Senate by Byron Pelton, R-Sterling and Chris Kolker, D-Littleton; and in the House by Lisa Frizell, R-Castle Rock and Chris deGruy Kennedy, D-Lakewood. It will prohibit any public agency, such as the Secretary of State’s Office, from:

  • Requiring any person to provide the public agency with data that may identify a member of a nonprofit entity (member-specific data) or compelling the disclosure of member-specific data
  • Disclosing member-specific data to any person
  • Requesting or requiring a current or prospective contractor or a current or prospective grantee of a grant program administered by the public agency to provide a list of nonprofit entities to which the current or prospective contractor or grantee has provided financial or nonfinancial support

It further outlines civil penalties for anyone who violates the new law including:

  • Not less than $2,500 for each violation
  • Not less than $7,500 for each intentional violation

A court may also award the costs of litigation to a complainant that prevails in such an action.

A fight over donor privacy

The bill comes about after decades of disagreement over whether non-partisan, but politically engaged non-profits such as the Independence Institute, a libertarian-leaning think tank, and the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, as well as others that work to shape state policy, should be required to disclose their donors.

A strange bedfellows assortment of organizations have lined up in support of the bill, including the ACLU of Colorado, Advance Colorado, Americans for Prosperity, the Independence Institute, One Colorado, Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains, and COWINS, which represents unionized state workers.

One of the Republican sponsors, Byron Pelton, said he put his name on the bill because he’s tired of Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold using her office for partisan purposes, and likes the idea of organizations that usually are polar opposites in goals coming together to fight a problem that impacts everyone.

Griswold has in the past tried to force conservative groups to disclose their donors due to spending on policy issues, while staying mum on similar spending by progressive groups.

“It was very appealing to me,” Pelton said, “when everyone can get in the same room and agree about protecting someone’s privacy and protecting freedom of speech.”

Donor disclosure has been a heated battle since the US Supreme Court took it up in 1958 when the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) sued the state of Alabama for trying to compel private organizations to disclose the identities of their members and donors. Alabama Attorney General, John M. Patterson wanted the NAACP to turn over its membership lists.

According to a Time Magazine story, the NAACP attorneys argued that it violated those members’ First Amendment freedoms of speech and assembly, saying white people and organizations owned by white people who believed in the NAACP’s work would not donate if they were in jeopardy of retaliation by others who found out. The court sided with the NAACP and restricted Alabama’s efforts, ruling that First Amendment rights extended to monetary donations to political and other non-profit organizations, some of which are controversial.

Fear of retribution

Over the years, those who have pushed for disclosure of donors, such as Griswold, have said retribution, such as during the civil rights movement, is not as profound today.

Pelton and Independence Institute* President Jon Caldara both said that is not true.

Caldara said transparency is for government and privacy is for people.

“In this age of doxing and political retribution it’s no wonder that organizations on every side of the political spectrum want to make sure that the people who are part of their team are protected,” Caldara said. “Do you really want the most radical of the MAGA crowd to know who’s supporting illegal immigration? Would you want the wild anti-abortionists to know who is supporting planned parenthood? Or do you want Antifa to know who’s supporting conservative groups? This is really a bill about personal safety.”

The 1958 ruling was not the only time the court came back with the same conclusion. In 2021, the Supreme Court ruled that a California law requiring donor disclosure was unconstitutional.

“I don’t want Jena Griswold or Phil Weiser or anyone behind them to be auditing anyone they choose, just willy nilly because they don’t agree with what they believe,” Pelton said.

“The fact that (Griswold) has politicized her office so much, this is the repercussions of that,” Pelton said. “The Supreme Court has been very clear. Money is speech. Period. And when they are that clear and that’s the way they ruled, we should respect that.”

The bill will be heard by the Labor & Technology committee at 2 p.m. on Feb. 27 in the Old Supreme Court building across from the Capitol.

* Independence Institute is the publisher of Complete Colorado


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