Campaign Finance Board oversteps its authority

  • Article by: JOHN HELMBERGER
  • Updated: October 13, 2011 - 6:46 PM

Its ruling on marriage-amendment donors would expose individuals for an organization's action.

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Minnesota for Marriage's United for Marriage Rally in 2006

Photo: Joey McLeister, Star Tribune

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The Star Tribune waxes righteous ("Voters should know amendment donors," Oct. 6) that the Minnesota Campaign Finance Board has "made the right call" in a ruling that attempts to force nonprofit organizations to disclose the identity of supporters if the nonprofit group contributes to the marriage-amendment campaign.

Nobody disagrees that voters are entitled to know who contributes to the marriage campaign. But the changes the Campaign Finance Board proposes are not authorized by law and would mislead the public, resulting in the disclosure of people who did not contribute to the campaign.

Nonprofit organizations, including churches, raise money from supporters who agree with their missions. If "Sally," a member of Meadowside Church, contributes money to support the work of her church, and Meadowside Church decides to contribute to the marriage-amendment campaign, it is wrong to claim that Sally has contributed to the marriage campaign. She has not; Meadowside Church has. The church's contribution should be disclosed, but it should not be attributed to Sally or any other individual church member.

For at least the past 15 years, this is how Minnesota law was regulated by the Campaign Finance Board, and it was the regulatory scheme in place for several other past constitutional amendments. Now that the marriage amendment has qualified for the ballot, the board is suddenly trying to change the rules, despite the fact that there has been no change in state disclosure laws.

Let's look at this issue a different way. The Star Tribune published the editorial I'm writing about. The paper has hundreds of employees, paid through a revenue stream from thousands of subscribers and advertisers. Isn't it enough that the public knows the Star Tribune has spoken out about this issue, or should the Star Tribune be forced to disclose which of its employees wrote the editorial and which of its advertisers' revenue paid for the publishing of the editorial?

Not only is the public misled when it is reported that Sally has contributed to the marriage campaign, but we know from experience that Sally will very likely be subjected to harassment as a result of the erroneous claim that she contributed to the campaign. The Heritage Foundation produced a report documenting the extensive harassment that supporters of California's marriage amendment (Proposition 8) faced, including loss of employment, death threats and property destruction. Regrettably, some gay-marriage activists have seen that intimidation can be an effective campaign tactic, and it has become standard fare in any marriage campaign.

The group "Knowthyneighbor.org" has published private information about traditional marriage supporters in numerous states and advocated that they be confronted with "uncomfortable conversations." In California, the group "eightmaps.com" published Google maps showing the home addresses, donation amounts and employers of contributors to Proposition 8 -- all of which they obtained from campaign finance reports. Evidence in various court proceedings document case after case of harassment -- phone calls at home and work, calls and e-mails to employers, boycotts of someone's employer, calls to clients, etc.

An additional issue regarding the Campaign Finance Board's new regulations is that the board simply does not have the legal authority to arbitrarily change Minnesota campaign reporting laws. That is the job of the Legislature. For almost a decade, the board has been asking the Legislature to expand or change the definition of "association" to be able to regulate nonprofit corporations in this manner, and the Legislature refused to grant it. The board has acted illegally in claiming legal authority it does not possess.

Our campaign will disclose all contributions and expenditures as required by longstanding Minnesota law. But we will not unnecessarily subject individuals to harassment simply because they support a group that, in turn, supports our campaign.

The public will know exactly how much money Meadowside Church or any other entity gives to Minnesota for Marriage. This more than satisfies the public interest in disclosure, and we do not oppose that.

But what the board wants to do is get inside of Meadowside Church's internal books and see who its members and donors are. This is beyond their legal authority, is a gross intrusion on privacy and associational freedom, and seeks the disclosure of information that the public has no legitimate interest in knowing. Forcing such disclosure will almost certainly result in harassment, will have serious impacts on the fundraising efforts of these groups, and will significantly chill speech and associational freedom.

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John Helmberger is chairman of the Minnesota for Marriage campaign.

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