Judge: Citizens United must disclose donor information to NY

AP News
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Posted: Aug 29, 2016 6:42 PM

NEW YORK (AP) — A nonprofit conservative organization advocating for less government must reveal information about major donors to the state's attorney general if it wants to solicit money in the state, a judge ruled Monday as he rejected First Amendment claims.

U.S. District Judge Sidney H. Stein said that states have a strong interest to ensure that charities do not serve as fronts for fraud and crime and the lawsuit by the conservative organization, Citizens United, failed to show that the requirement "lacks a substantial relation to these important governmental interests."

He called the policy imposed by Democratic Attorney General Eric Schneiderman "a generic disclosure policy, one the First Amendment has long considered acceptable." The policy requires every charitable organization to reveal its major donors before soliciting money in the state.

The judge rejected what he described as Citizens United's overstated dangers as a result of the policy, including claims that donors could face public backlash, financial harm or worse.

"Plaintiffs provide no factual background or support for their conclusory assertions," the judge said, pointing out that the U.S. Supreme Court six years ago noted that the group has been disclosing its donors for years and has never identified an instance of harassment or retaliation against a donor.

The judge said the 2014 lawsuit, brought by Citizens United and the Citizens United Foundation, "fails to allege that any donor has suffered in the past due to donating, and it fails to allege any fact that could render future negative consequences plausible."

If the group violates the policy, it could lose its registration and ability to solicit money and face up to a $100-per-day penalty.

In 2010, Citizens United won a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling that lifted restrictions on independent spending by corporations and labor unions, often without disclosing donors. It permitted outside groups known as super political action committees, or super PACs, or nonprofits to take unlimited contributions and spend independently to sway voters.

In a statement, Citizens United general counsel Michael Boos said the organization was "quite disappointed" and was studying its appeal options.

"The gist of Judge Stein's ruling is that our complaint, which is supplemented by over 100 pages of exhibits and includes a specific example of Schneiderman's own public statements of extreme hostility toward Citizens United, does not include enough factual details to establish a claim for relief under the First Amendment," he said.

Yet, he added, the lawsuit was just as detailed as, if not more so than, a similar successful lawsuit against the California attorney general.

He noted that the lawsuit that resulted in the landmark 2010 ruling was tossed out by a lower court judge.

"Lightning just might strike twice," Boos said.

Schneiderman said the ruling is a "victory for common sense oversight of New York's vast nonprofit sector."