The Dark Side of the Left’s Move to Ban 'Dark Money'

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In the mid-1950s, when Jim Crow laws reigned in Alabama, state attorney general John M. Patterson – later a Ku Klux Klan-supported governor – filed a lawsuit against the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The suit alleged that the NAACP was violating a state statute concerning the registration of out-of-state corporations. In reality, the legal action was a thinly veiled attempt to cripple the NAACP by revealing its roster of supporters’ names and addresses to the government and the public.

Unwilling to expose its supporters to harassment, violence, or worse by the likes of the KKK, the NAACP refused. 

The case made it to the U.S. Supreme Court, which, in 1958, ruled unanimously in favor of donor privacy. The court wrote: “Inviolability of privacy in group association may in many circumstances be indispensable to preservation of freedom of association, particularly where a group espouses dissident beliefs.”

Now, Pennsylvania lawmakers want to strip Americans of these constitutional rights and effectively overturn NAACP v. Alabama

Recently, a state House committee passed a Democrat-sponsored resolution calling on Congress to begin the process of amending the U.S. Constitution to allow states to force groups – which would include the NAACP – to hand over the names of their supporters to the government. 

The effort, which drew support even from multiple Republican lawmakers, is being pitched as a move to ban so-called “dark money.” The term refers to money used to advocate for or against causes or candidates by groups not required to disclose their donors. These groups often speak out on controversial issues. 

In addition to the NAACP, examples of such groups include Planned Parenthood and the ACLU on the Left, or, on the Right, Americans for Prosperity or my organization, Commonwealth Partners. 

(A clarification: Any political action committees associated with these groups must disclose donors on required campaign-finance reports, but the arms of these groups registered as not-for-profit membership or social welfare groups under the tax code face no such requirement. They are, however, required to disclose how much they spend for or against candidates or on issues.)

Ironically, in recent elections, Democrats in Pennsylvania have received far more support from so-called dark money groups than Republicans. Last year, Democratic Supreme Court Justice Dan McCaffery benefited from more than $8 million in spending by groups including the ACLU and Pennsylvanians for Judicial Fairness. The Republican nominee received no similar support.

Pennsylvania lawmakers complain that the Supreme Court has equated election spending with free speech. And they are spinning their effort as an attempt to “ensure … free speech” and “secur[e] … liberty.” 

But as we know – and as the Supreme Court confirmed in NAACP v. Alabama – “In the domain of these indispensable liberties, whether of speech, press, or association … abridgment of such rights, even though unintended, may inevitably follow from varied forms of governmental action.”

Our unalienable right to free speech was enshrined in the Constitution to protect political expression, preventing politicians from using government power to threaten and harass critics. 

The dark truth behind the Left’s attempt to ban dark money is that the ultimate aim is to change the Bill of Rights in order to eliminate the bedrock principle of free speech and monitor Americans’ ideological affiliations.

If such an attack on Americans’ fundamental rights had succeeded in 1958, the names and addresses of the NAACP’s supporters would have been handed over to the KKK under the guise of “transparency.”

If lawmakers succeed today in empowering government and politicians to persecute individuals and organizations because of their giving, the outcome will be no less a threat to democracy. 

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