Denver’s attempt to rein in the “dark money” that drives, and sometimes distorts, a lot of campaign messaging has landed the city in court. A lawsuit filed in Denver District Court Wednesday by a public-interest litigation foundation out of Arizona — the libertarian-leaning, Phoenix-based Goldwater Institute — contends that provisions of the campaign-reform ordinance enacted by the Denver City Council in September are unconstitutional.
The suit was filed on behalf of two political-advocacy nonprofits that are a familiar presence on Colorado’s political right — the Colorado Union of Taxpayers Foundation and the TABOR Committee.
The new Denver campaign law, which has assorted other components not challenged by the suit, takes effect in January.
Calling the targeted provisions of the new law “unfair and unconstitutional,” a Goldwater press statement Wednesday says the measure, “requires nonprofits to give the government a list of their donors — including their occupations and employers — any time those groups spend as little as $500 communicating with voters about city ballot measures.” In other words, it effectively turns advocacy groups like the two plaintiffs into political or issue committees regulated by campaign laws.
The press statement continues:
…By undermining nonprofits’ speech rights, individual privacy is undermined as well.
“Since the 1950s, the Supreme Court has protected donors’ privacy when they contribute to nonprofits, ruling that government officials can’t force advocacy groups to turn over the identities of their supporters to public officials. But Denver’s new ordinance disregards this precedent entirely,” said Goldwater Institute Senior Attorney Matt Miller. “Nonprofits have the right to educate and speak up for what they believe in, and that’s why we’re asking the city of Denver to stop the enforcement of its donor disclosure ordinance.”
Goldwater also quotes the Colorado Union of Taxpayers’ Marty Neilson:
“Putting donors’ names, addresses, employers, and occupations on a government list makes them vulnerable to harassment and intimidation, … Nonprofits should be able to choose whether or not to make their donor lists public in order to persuade people to listen to what they have to say, but that should be their decision to make, not the government.”
The Denver Post reported Wednesday that the Denver Elections Division declined to comment on active litigation.
Goldwater says the Denver law is “the latest in a trend of cities cracking down on nonprofit donors’ First Amendment rights.” Santa Fe, N.M., enacted such a law in 2015, and one is under consideration in Tempe, Ariz.