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Originally Published: December 13, 2016

119 Year-Old Democratic Reform, Anti-Corruption Civic Group Accuses the Governor of Trying to Chill Free Speech and Cripple the Advocacy of Good Government Who Seek to Hold New York State Government Accountable and Make our Democracy Work.

Group Seeks to Overturn Select Portions of Recently Enacted State Law Requiring Public Disclosure of Donors Whose Nonpolitical Charitable Giving Was Kept Private under IRS rules and Protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Will fight a law designed to chill free speech and silence government critics by limiting contributions to charitable nonprofits working to educate the public 

Late last night – shortly before midnight – Citizens Union (CU) and Citizens Union Foundation (CUF), represented by the law firm, Gibson Dunn, filed a lawsuit against the state of New York naming the Governor, members of JCOPE and its executive director, along with the Attorney General as Defendants. This is the complaint, Citizens UNION vs. State of New York – December 2016.

We seek to stop the intrusive and unwarranted actions of New York State government and certain elected officials like Governor Cuomo in seeking to chill the free speech of organizations like Citizens Union whose mission includes holding government accountable.   This law intends to silence nonprofits that criticize elected officials by affecting their ability to raise funds and should not be allowed to stand.

The suit alleges that our rights, and the rights of our members and donors, protected under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, have been violated.  We seek to have struck down the unconstitutionally broad provisions of the New York Executive Law, codified at sections 172-e and 172-f (the “Nonprofit Disclosure Provisions”), that will require public disclosure of broad swaths of donors and donations to nonprofit organizations, even when those donors and donations are supporting speech on matters of public concern but are far removed from elections or electioneering.

The newly elected chair of the board of directors of CU and CUF, Randy Mastro, who, as a partner at Gibson Dunn, will represent CU and CUF in this case, says: “This statute blatantly violates the First Amendment, and we are confident the court will find it to be unconstitutional.  The First Amendment guarantees bedrock constitutional rights to speak on matters of public concern and to associate for that purpose. And the government cannot burden those rights without having a sufficiently important or compelling interest to do so. Here, there is no such governmental interest served by burdening not-for-profits like Citizens Union with these onerous disclosure obligations.”

Dick Dadey, the executive director of CU and CUF, said this, “With the eyes of the nation set on Washington after the surprising election of President-elect Trump, New Yorkers must not lose sight of the tomfoolery that is going on in our state capitol with government actions like these.  This law is not only a bad law but an illegal one. This is bad government at is worst. That these provisions and the issues they seek to address were only made public 24-hours before the bill was passed and the legislative session ended shows how run amuck our state government has become in passing laws without any public scrutiny.  Our practice of democracy in New York State has truly become dysfunctional. This hidden approach to governing needs to stop. With no ethics reform on the agenda, the governor pivoted and proposed changes he claimed would address the big money and independent expenditures loopholes permitted by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United case.   In the guise of addressing Citizens United, he attacked Citizens Union and other good government groups who challenge our government to do better and work to hold our elected officials accountable. We will not be cowed by unconstitutional acts aimed at undermining our fundamental free speech rights.”

Citizens Union believes the Nonprofit Disclosure Provisions are unconstitutionally overbroad, regulating not only speech for or against candidates for public office but also infringing on core political speech unrelated to corruption or elections.  Specifically, the Nonprofit Disclosure Provisions now require, without any nexus to elections or corruption, broad public disclosures of donations and donor identities from (1) certain tax-exempt organizations that contribute money or services to another organization engaging in lobbying, even if the contribution and the lobbying activities are wholly unrelated, and (2) certain tax-exempt organizations that speak out on any matter of public concern, i.e., any issue of civil, social, or political importance, at any time.  These sweeping provisions go far beyond electoral transparency and accountability; instead, they impermissibly burden the everyday, citizen-to-citizen dialogue at the heart of First Amendment.

Citizens Union brings New Yorkers together to strengthen our democracy and improve our City.   Nonpartisan and independent, it aims to build a political system that is fair and open to all, values each voice, and engages every voter.  As New York’s democratic reform organization, it informs, empowers, and organizes citizens to strengthen the integrity of the city and state’s political institutions.  It fights against corruption, works to reform the state’s voting and electoral systems, and presses for city and state governments that are transparent, accountable, and effective.

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