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Should The Law Require Nonprofits to Reveal Their Donor Lists?

Transparency is always a good thing, right? Maybe not. Nonprofit organizations in New York State, for example, aren’t happy about having to comply with Governor Andrew Cuomo‘s 2011 ethics law, which requires tax-exempt organizations to release lists of donors who contribute more than $5,000.

The issue they raise concerns donors’ privacy and personal safety. The law doesn’t just affect shadowy groups with “freedom” or “victory” in their names that solicit millions to pay for presidential candidates’ attack ads: it also includes groups that support and oppose abortion rights, gay marriage, and other hot-button topics. A disappointing number of people are so politically fanatical that they won’t hesitate to leave threatening messages and even take direct action against those who contribute to these groups. In fact, the state legislature already ruled that Naral Pro-Choice New York doesn’t have to comply.

Representatives from the American Civil Liberties Union say that their donors shouldn’t have to deal with such harassment either.

We get this. It’s a legitimate concern. But nonprofit groups (also known as “lobbying” groups) will only gain greater influence on American politics in the years to come, especially after the Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizens United case. Is it really fair to exempt them from paying the same taxes levied on every other business or organization without requiring them to disclose what it is, exactly, that they do?

Would a federal law requiring groups that don’t have to pay taxes to let us know who’s funding their operations really be such a bad thing? And wouldn’t transparency be good PR for these groups?

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