Citizens United v. Schneiderman
About the Case
Citizens United v. Schneiderman is a challenge to a New York State law that requires registered charitable organizations to report their donors to the state attorney general. Citizens United, a 501(c)(4) organization active in the state, has asked the Second Circuit Court of Appeals to either declare New York's donor reporting requirement unconstitutional, or to grant it an exemption from the requirement. However, this law – which asks only for non-public disclosure and applies to groups that receive state tax benefits – is less burdensome than the public political disclosure laws the Supreme Court has consistently upheld.
The attorney general defends the law by emphasizing the donor disclosure assists his office in administering tax laws and protecting taxpayers against fraud. And as CLC has long argued, the disclosure of money raised and spent in elections for other political purposes has been the bedrock of our political system for many years, usually supported by all political parties.
UPDATE: On Feb. 15, 2018, the Second Circuit issued an opinion rejecting Citizens United's claim, upholding the disclosure laws in the state.
What’s at Stake
Striking down New York’s disclosure law would imperil many non-profit registration and disclosure regulations across the country. It is important to note that the challenged disclosure requirement only requires non-public, confidential reporting from Citizens United, and thus the group is attempting to escape all state oversight over its activities, even while enjoying state tax exemption and other benefits.
Further, expanding the “harassment exemption” from political disclosure laws as Citizens United demands would create an exception that swallows the rule. Citizens United cannot credibly allege that the identity of its donors will be made public. But even if the challenged donor reporting requirement was public in nature, Citizens United makes no attempt to show a reasonable probability that its donors will face harassment or reprisals, but instead rests its request for exemption on the mere allegation that its donors would prefer to remain anonymous and avoid public criticism for their political stances. But exempting issue advocacy groups from disclosure simply because their donors dislike lawful criticism from the public would eviscerate political disclosure laws and undercut the free flow of information and robust debate the First Amendment is meant to protect.
CLC filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the Second Circuit on Apr. 14, 2017 in support of New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. In its brief, CLC argues that the New York reporting law is constitutional as a general matter and that Citizens United cannot claim an exemption from the law.