JMI V⁠i⁠ewpo⁠i⁠n⁠t⁠: Save Some Space for Pr⁠i⁠vacy In Deba⁠t⁠es on Publ⁠i⁠c Pol⁠i⁠cy

By: The James Madison Institute / June 5, 2013

The James Madison Institute


June 5, 2013

By: Robert F. Sanchez, JMI policy directorAs CSPAN proves, government can be boring, and that’s OK. Yet you probably don’t want our government to engage in a different kind of boring: drilling down into your brain to see what’s on your mind.Of course, as the IRS scandal illustrates, nowadays you don’t have to be paranoid to worry about a meddlesome government prying into every aspect of your life. Fortunately, however, the government’s snoops haven’t yet figured out how to read our minds, though not for lack of trying.Granted, Big Brother can learn a lot about us – even our innermost beliefs — via other means. Indeed, many folks voluntarily reveal a lot about their worldview through the causes and candidates they back, the groups they join, and the things they say in public forums or reveal on Facebook. More power to them.For others, though, going public with their thoughts – especially contrarian views — can be risky, especially at a time when governments blatantly engage in crony capitalism, repeatedly throwing their weight around to pick winners and losers.In this easily corruptible model of a society, people no longer achieve success solely by offering a better product, service, or idea. Instead, they push for laws, rules, and regulations favoring their own interests and undercutting their rivals.In this environment, shouldn’t we preserve at least one safe haven where individuals, groups, and businesses that are passionately devoted to particular political, ideological, or religious viewpoints may get together to support them without a fear of reprisals?Actually, there is such a place, though it’s under attack. Donors to groups organized under section 501(c)(4) of the tax code may still remain anonymous without forfeiting their  First Amendment right to engage in today’s great policy debates — as long as the group’s primary activity isn’t explicitly political.This arrangement has received lots of attention lately because of the scandal in which the IRS harassed conservatives applying for 501(c) (4) status. That investigation continues.
Meanwhile, Big Brother is annoyed that deep-pocketed secret donors fund some of these 501(c)(4) groups. His snoops evidently have a burning desire to know what’s on the mind of anyone and everyone who might dare to engage in the battle of ideas.For Big Brother, it’s not enough that gifts to political candidates must be reported. Nor is it enough that the IRS also learns of gifts to non-profits organized under section 501(c)(3) of the tax code. Those tax deductible gifts are reported on the donors’ tax returns.Yet that’s far from enough “transparency” for the would-be snoops, already irate because the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling upheld the First Amendment rights of individuals to come together, incorporate, and engage in the battle of ideas.Big Brother’s allies in outfits the media routinely call “good government groups” argue that the real solution to the IRS scandal is to end the anonymity of donors to 501(c) (4) groups — and to prevent those “shadowy groups” from engaging in the battle of ideas.This demand to know who’s behind these organizations brings to mind a 50-year-old decision the U.S. Supreme Court rendered in a Florida case, Gibson v. Florida Legislative Investigation Committee.The defendant was the notorious “Johns Committee.” Chaired by Sen. Charley Johns, D-Starke, it left a trail of ruined lives and sullied reputations as it conducted witch hunts in Florida’s university system and elsewhere to root out Communists and homosexuals.The committee, suspecting that Communists had infiltrated the NAACP’s Miami branch, ordered its president, the Rev. Theodore Gibson, to hand over the group’s membership list. When he refused, he was cited for contempt. The Florida Supreme Court shamefully upheld the contempt citation.Gibson appealed and finally prevailed when the U.S. Supreme Court saw the issue differently. In a 5-4 majority opinion authored by Justice Arthur Goldberg, the key passage is a welcome affirmation of privacy’s importance to Americans’ freedom of association:“This Court has recognized the vital relationship between freedom to associate and privacy in one’s associations. 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.”Those words should give pause to those clamoring for public disclosure of the identity of every individual who takes part in the battle of ideas. In a free country, all persons — billionaires or “average Joes” alike – should be able to keep their viewpoints private if they wish, and to do so without forfeiting their precious First Amendment rights.