California Leak Reinforces Importance of Donor Privacy

About a year ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of donor privacy in Americans for Prosperity Foundation v. Bonta, determining California’s dragnet collection of personal information on donors to nonprofit organizations violated the First Amendment. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts noted California’s history of leaking sensitive personal information of nonprofit donors, citing the state’s online publication of Schedule B forms that contained the names and addresses of major nonprofit donors. Unfortunately, the California attorney general’s office recently was implicated again in another leak of personal information.  

Last week, the office of California Attorney General Rob Bonta released the personal information of state residents who applied for a concealed carry weapons permit. This information included names, dates of birth, home addresses, driver’s license numbers, criminal histories and demographic data like race and gender of residents who applied for a concealed carry weapons permit in California from 2011 to 2021.  Though the state claims the publication of personal information was accidental, the leak came days after the Supreme Court handed down a decision in a landmark case, New York State Rifle & Pistol Association, Inc. v. Bruen, which invalidated New York’s stringent requirements for issuing concealed carry weapons permits. While critics of the leak suggest it was a direct response to the case, it’s important to note these actions are reminiscent of the donor privacy concerns that led to the Bonta ruling, where the Court repudiated the California attorney general for leaking personal information of donors to nonprofit organizations.   

Notably, when pressed during oral arguments in Bonta about why the state should be trusted with personal information given its demonstrated record of carelessness, the state solicitor general argued prior leaks were accidental and unlikely to occur again. A little over a year later, the state has proven once more that it is incapable of properly handling personal information.  

Of course, leaks like these are not exclusive to California. Last year, ProPublica obtained and published the private IRS tax forms of America’s wealthiest residents. In 2019, Texas Rep. Joaquin Castro tweeted the names and employers of residents in his district who donated to President Trump’s campaign for reelection. During the heat of national debates over gay marriage in 2012, the Human Rights Campaign published IRS tax information of donors to the National Organization for Marriage, a group advocating for marriage as the union of one man and one woman. 

These leaks of sensitive personal data reinforce the value of donor privacy. In “Unheralded Generosity: A 50-State Look at Anonymous Giving,” Philanthropy Roundtable compiled a state-by-state database of case studies demonstrating how donor privacy empowers donors to invest in their communities. The database shares stories from each state illustrating how anonymous donations helped improve lives. In one case, for example, an anonymous donor from Ohio helped to free a group of missionaries kidnapped by a gang in Haiti in 2021. While the donor who helped free the hostages has not come forward, it is easy to imagine the legitimate safety concerns one would have with being public in this effort.  

Simply put, donors are less willing to donate to causes they care about if they risk having their personal information publicized online. Leaks of personal data in California and elsewhere demonstrate that government offices cannot be trusted to protect such information, particularly when it relates to polarizing issues.

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