Citizens United loses fight in donor disclosure dispute

By Quinten Plummer | Oct 21, 2016

NEW YORK (Legal Newsline) -- Charitable organizations must still disclose donor's names, address and the amount of total contributions in order to solicit funds in New York after a U.S. district judge dismissed a complaint filed by Citizens United and Citizens United Foundation against New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced earlier this month.

This isn't the first time Citizens United and others like it have challenged similar policies on grounds of protecting their constitutional rights, according to Pace University's James Fishman, a professor of corporate finance and nonprofit organizations.

"Regulations have been challenged in several cases because plaintiffs, conservative organizations, feel they violate their privacy and first amendment rights," Fishman told Legal Newsline. "This was rejected by the Second Circuit."  

Citizens United, a political action committee, and its Citizens United Foundation, its research and education arm, have been filing their Schedule B "Interest and Ordinary Dividends" funds with the Internal Revenue Service for decades and have "traditionally" only filed the forms first page to omit disclosing donor information, according to court documents.

The attorney general requires that charities submit completed Schedule B forms in order to receive a license to solicit funds in New York state. While acknowledging that the attorney general doesn't have the power to deny or approve applications for licenses at his own discretion, the plaintiffs argued he has too much authority over the registration requirements.

Citizens United argued the defendant's ability to change the registration requirements for licenses gave him power to harm their First Amendment rights. But the court ruled the Constitution allows risks that could cause free speech to be deterred as a result of the government's ability to alter registration requirements.

"Here, for instance, the complaint only alleges one such change-filing unredacted versus redacted Schedules B--and thus there is no indication that the requirements of New York's charitable solicitation regime are so slippery that the regime at large discourages a theoretical speaker from even trying to use her voice," the court stated in its opinion.

In 2010 the conservative PAC won a landmark case that was heard before the U.S. Supreme Court. The decision in the case, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, uncapped the amount of the money corporations and unions can contribute to campaigns.

With the latest ruling in New York, Fishman said the outcome wasn't surprising but it doesn't mean it's the end of the line for this dispute.

"The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reached a similar result in one case," Fishman said. "Another where the lower court ruled in favor of the plaintiff is pending in the Ninth Circuit."

But although Citizens United can appeal the district court's decision, the group will still need to prove the extra paperwork for registering for a license to solicit steps on its protected speech.

"I think the right decision was reached in no small part because the plaintiffs have been unable to show that they would be hurt by these regulations, which merely assist the state attorney general in enforcement," Fishman said.

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