Federal judge re-affirms free speech victory, invalidating Connecticut’s unconstitutional donor privacy and fundraising registration laws

January 27, 2022 | By DANIEL ORTNER

This week, Connecticut put the final nail in the coffin of a state law that violated the free speech of charity fundraisers.

The First Amendment covers a lot of ground that may not be immediately obvious. Most probably understand that it protects people’s right to peacefully protest, their right to express their opinion, and even their right to burn an American flag.

What is, perhaps, less obvious, is the protection the First Amendment provides to nonprofit fundraisers and donors.

A good fundraiser knows that garnering donations means speaking from the heart about issues for which they care so passionately. It means building personal relationships with prospective and existing donors.

Fundraising is, in short, a personal experience, and, like most things in life, it doesn’t go by a script, but rather by instinct and spontaneous human connection.

But a Connecticut law intervened in this process and prevented fundraisers from doing their job.

The law forced paid solicitors to tell the state not only when they planned to speak to a potential donor, but also to provide the state with a script of exactly what they were going to say.

This didn’t sit right with Adam Kissel, a fundraiser for the Jack Miller Center, a nonprofit focused on civic education. Adam believed in the organization’s mission to help professors and instructors teach students about America’s founding principles, government, and history.

But his work was stopped in its tracks before he even got started, all thanks to this absurd state law.

Governments cannot poke their nose into private political conversations with potential donors any more than they can force a person to tell government officials what political opinions they hold. It doesn’t matter if you are a college student, an activist, or, in this case, a fundraiser. The First Amendment protects all individuals from government intrusion on free speech.

But this law took things even further.

Not only did fundraisers have to provide state officials with a script, but they also demanded that the names of donors be recorded and reported on demand, even if the donor gave only $1. Anyone who went off script was subject to a $5,000 fine. Worse still, they could even face a year in prison.

In addition to the chilling effect the rules had on fundraisers, this is a violation of a donor’s right to privacy, especially in light of a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down a California regulation requiring charities to disclose the identities of major donors.

After Connecticut refused to follow the lead of other states like West Virginia, Pacific Legal Foundation helped Adam fight back with a federal First Amendment lawsuit.

In July 2021, Adam scored a major victory in his fight to speak freely to potential donors about the causes he supports when the judge granted us a preliminary injunction. It was a great first step, but the decision had not yet been made permanent—until last week.

The State of Connecticut conceded that the challenged laws would be found unconstitutional. In addition to permanently stopping enforcement of the challenged laws, the State also agreed to post a notice on its website so that fundraisers would know these onerous requirements were no more.

With this victory, everyone in Connecticut is now free to advocate for issues they believe in, without Connecticut’s unconstitutional restrictions on fundraisers’ speech.

All forms of free speech deserve protection. When any facet of free speech is violated, the entire First Amendment stands in jeopardy.

The government cannot demand that you disclose in advance what you are going to say and provide a script before you can speak. Nor can the government rob citizens of their privacy when they donate to a nonprofit.

A few other states, such as Tennessee, still have similarly repressive laws on the books; and politicians in other states continue to push policies which strip away donor privacy. Hopefully, these other states will take note of Connecticut’s capitulation and restore the free speech rights of fundraisers and the privacy rights of donors without needing to be sued.