Taxpayers Challenge Denver, Colorado Nonprofit Disclosure Law

Published January 10, 2018

Working with lawyers from the Goldwater Institute, taxpayers in Denver, Colorado are challenging a new city law requiring nonprofit political organizations to identify their donors publicly.

Starting January 1, 2018, nonprofit 501(c)3 and (c)4 organizations spending $500 or more a year on local ballot measures will be required to report publicly the names and addresses of all donors contributing at least $50.

On December 13, 2017, Goldwater Institute lawyers filed a lawsuit in the Denver District Court for the Second Judicial District of Colorado on behalf of the Colorado Union of Taxpayers Foundation and the TABOR Committee, two local nonprofit taxpayers’ rights organizations.

The organizations are asking Chief Judge Michael Martinez of the Denver District Court for the Second Judicial District of Colorado to block enforcement of the law.

Shutting Down Debate

Matt Miller, a senior attorney with the Goldwater Institute, says disclosure laws suppress public debate.

“Donors value their privacy, for reasons ranging from simple modesty to religious conviction to fear of retaliation,” Miller said. “Studies show that donors are less likely to give if they fear their names will be disclosed to the government. These laws will ultimately lead to weakened nonprofits and fewer voices speaking about important public issues.”

Donor disclosure laws are more intrusive than typical campaign finance laws, Miller says. 

“These laws, which we’re seeing in places like Denver, Santa Fe, and Tempe, differ from traditional campaign-finance laws in a crucial way,” Miller said. “Unlike laws requiring disclosure of donors to political campaigns, these laws require nonprofits to disclose their donors for doing nothing more than speaking about a ballot issue.”

Who’s Watching Whom?

Hans von Spakovsky, a senior legal fellow at The Heritage Foundation’s Meese Center for Legal and Judicial Studies, says the people should be able to keep on an eye on the government, but not vice versa.

“The transparency rules that we have, let the public keep an eye on the government,” von Spakovsky said. “That’s why we have open-meeting laws and freedom of information laws at the state and federal levels. It’s an invasion of our privacy rights and our First Amendment rights for the government to require disclosure so that they can keep an eye on us.”

Silencing the Average Person

Donor disclosure laws benefit powerful individuals and discourage politically weaker individuals from participating in politics, von Spakovsky says.

“Multimillionaires don’t have to worry much about losing their jobs or becoming social outcasts because they donate to a specific organization, but the average person has to worry about his job if his employers find out he contributed to an organization they don’t agree with,” von Spakovsky said. “When you force that kind of disclosure, it affects associational rights, prevents people from associating, and is a way for the government to change the things private organizations are doing.”