A federal court on Tuesday blocked efforts by officials in California to force a conservative group to hand over the names of its donors, saying the order could violate those donors’ First Amendment rights.
Kamala Harris, California’s attorney general and a Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate, demanded last year that the Americans for Prosperity Foundation (AFPF) turn over its donor rolls. The court enjoined that demand pending the outcome of AFPF’s suit attempting to invalidate the order.
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AFPF claims that the disclosure would subject its donors to "grotesque threats" similar to the routine attacks against Charles and David Koch, the group’s founders, and would therefore chill their free speech. The court agreed.
"Donors who have witnessed harassment of those perceived to be connected with plaintiff's co-founders have experienced their unwillingness to continue to participate if such limited disclosure is made," said Judge Manuel Real of the District Court of the Central District of California.
AFPF, the judge said, "has proffered sufficient evidence establishing that public disclosure would have a chilling effect on free speech."
Harris’ does not have adequate measures in place to compartmentalize and protect sensitive personal information contained in AFPF’s annual tax filings, the court noted.
Its policies regarding the treatment of identifying donor information, the court said, is "impermissibly entirely discretionary and could change at any moment."
Attorneys representing Harris objected to the order on the grounds that it enjoined the attorney general from gathering any information that would identify donors, not simply the specific tax filings that the state initially demanded from the group.
Harris did not object to the more narrow provisions of the injunction, which protects AFPF from having to furnish those tax filings specifically.
In a separate injunction last week, Real blocked the public disclosure of that information in light of death threats and other instances of harassment and intimidation against the Kochs and others affiliated with AFPF.
The judge noted at the time that AFPF had presented evidence suggesting that merely disclosing that information to the state would leave donors vulnerable to harassment. It cited previous attempts by high-ranking California officials to erroneously link the Kochs to campaign finance violations in the state.
Tuesday’s ruling is not a final determination on the merits of AFPF’s position, but rather an effort to prevent violations of its donors’ First Amendment rights while the court considers the case.
However, the ruling is a major victory for AFP and other groups fighting mandatory donor disclosure for 501(c)(4) issue advocacy groups that generally are not required by federal law to disclose their donors.
It is also a setback for Harris, whose focus on AFPF dovetails with a national Democratic strategy of vilifying Republican donors, especially the Kochs.
Harris is already running a scorched earth campaign, targeting potential Democratic rivals for a U.S. Senate seat that will be left vacant next year with the retirement of Sen. Barbara Boxer. "I make no apologies," Harris said of her aggressive campaign style.
Attacks on the Kochs could be a useful populist foil for her campaign.
Anti-Koch sentiment has paid dividends for Ann Ravel, until 2013 the chair of the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission. Ravel made headlines that year when she accused the Kochs of supporting two groups that copped to campaign finance violations during the 2012 elections.
Ravel was forced to retract her claim after the Kochs denied any involvement with the groups, but not before President Obama appointed her as the co-chair of the Federal Election Commission.
Harris and Ravel teamed up to win a $1 million settlement from the two groups in 2013. That helped establish the former’s anti-Koch bona fides, pleasing many progressive commentators looking toward the 2016 Senate race.
Dan Newman, a political consultant in California, has been sounding the alarm on the hundreds of millions of dollars that the Kochs and their allies plan to spend during the 2016 election cycle.
Such warnings have boosted Democratic fundraising efforts in the past. Newman is also working for Harris’ 2016 campaign.