November 8, 2012
Mayer: Nonprofits, Politics, and Privacy
With the rapidly increasing flows of money into politics and accompanying calls for greater disclosure of the sources of those funds, the time is ripe for a deeper consideration of the policy concerns that underlie disclosure requirements and the related issue of privacy. One important aspect of this deeper consideration is recognizing that this particular area is at the intersection of three significantly different disclosure regimes. Those three regimes are (1) federal tax law generally, (2) federal tax law as it applies to tax-exempt nonprofit organizations, and (3) federal election law. These regimes are a study in contrasts. Federal tax law strongly protects taxpayer information from public disclosure. Federal tax exemption law strongly favors public disclosure of institutional information, but it is more ambivalent about public disclosure of information relating to individuals. Federal election law strongly favors public disclosure of all relevant financial information, including information relating to individuals. Understanding the reasons for these differences is important when determining whether disclosures at the intersection of the three regimes are appropriate and desirable. The other, related aspect of this deeper consideration is privacy. The concept of privacy is one that is instantly recognizable and yet theoretically, much less legally, hard to define. This difficulty stems in part from the many possible applications of the privacy concept. Fortunately for the purposes of this Article, the context here is fairly clear and narrow: the public disclosure of information relating to nonprofit organizations involved in politics and their supporters. Even in this narrow context, however, there are at least two competing approaches with respect to privacy. One approach takes a cost-benefit approach. It judges disclosure requirements based on their quantifiable costs and benefits, including among those costs the harm to privacy, however measured. The other, less frequently used approach is a right-to-privacy approach that considers privacy a fundamental right that can only be abridged if there is a relatively strong interest for doing so and then only to the extent required to further that interest.
The first Part of this Article briefly reviews and contrasts the history and current rules governing disclosure and privacy in the federal tax, federal tax exemption, and federal election law contexts. This review reveals that both the cost-benefit approach and the right-to-privacy approach can be found in this history, but to a greater or lesser extent depending on the context. The second Part explores these two different approaches and the extent to which the existing disclosure rules reflect those approaches. This Part shows that the rules are sometimes but not always based both on the cost-benefit approach to disclosure, in which privacy harms are but one possible cost, and on the right-to-privacy approach. The third Part considers recent proposals for disclosure rules relating to nonprofit organizations engaged in political activity using both the cost-benefit approach and the right-to-privacy approach. This consideration reveals that certain proposals, which relate to disclosure of financial information primarily about the organizations themselves, generally are justifiable under either approach. Certain other proposals that would require disclosure of financial information primarily relating to individuals, however, are more difficult to justify under a right-to-privacy approach. I conclude by discussing why this difference exists and what it means for the desirability of disclosure in this area.
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