Privacy and Political Contributions

August 5, 2008 | | Comments Off on Privacy and Political Contributions

I recently plugged in my Williamsburg zip code to a Web site to see whether my neighbors were making campaign contributions. Not only was I surprised to discover that classic rocker Bruce Hornsby lives just down the street, but I also unearthed the political affiliations for some faculty members at William & Mary. It was a sharp reminder of the conflict between privacy and political activism provided through the First Amendment and the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA).

Professor Daniel J. Solove, an expert on privacy law who teaches at GWU (and, umm, for the purposes of poetic disclosure, donated $250 to a presidential campaign in Q1 2008), discusses two problems he has with this publicly available information:

1. I believe that the disclosure of people’s campaign contributions violates the First Amendment…

2. Another problem with making the data so publicly accessible is that it facilitates abuse by employers or others who might discriminate against people because of their political views…

Prof. Solove begins his argument by stating that he strongly disagrees with Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U.S. 1 (1976), which held that political contributions needed to remain public in order to “alert the voter to the interests to which a candidate is most likely to be responsive.” Along with several other watchdog functions, the Court determined that the disclosure requirements passed heightened scrutiny.

Furthermore, Prof. Solove argues that political activism and affiliations, as well as campaign contributions could be chilled if people feared discrimination for their views. He uses the example of the recent DOJ Report (PDF), which demonstrates that participants in perceived liberal organizations, such as ACS (woot woot!), have been severely disadvantaged for their affiliations.

But, as many point out in the comments section of Concurring Opinions, as well as various other blogs, even though this disclosure might chill some individual political actions, it can also be useful in the aggregate to determine who might be influencing politicians.

Despite the potential chilling effects, it should be noted that Americans already spend more annually on chewing gum than they do on campaign contributions (Thanks, Freakonomics, for the factoid). Perhaps if more people contributed to campaigns, the data would be used less frequently as an identifying characteristic within our societal norms. For example, just because I donated to Candidate X, does not necessarily mean I agree with X completely, I just think X has a right to run a campaign and I would like to finance that a little bit.

In the end, there does not seem to be a quick fix for this tension between privacy and political activism. Can we do anything about this, or, in the words of Bruce Hornsby is this “just the way it is”?


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