Court's ruling on third parties will have chilling effect

The Madison County Record Oct. 16, 2011, 11:58am

We all have favorite causes: charitable groups, social groups, political groups. We normally don't mind other people knowing what charity we support. After all, it's likely to be our church, the United Way, or an organization fighting a disease that claimed a loved one.

When it comes to social or political groups, however, we might be more circumspect. Conservatives working at liberal universities might not want their NRA memberships bruited about. Liberals living in a conservative neighborhood might prefer to keep their support of the ACLU to themselves.

Some people do revel in going against the grain, but most of us, for better or worse, try not to. Imagine if every donation you ever made to any group was a matter of public record.

You'd have to think twice about making some donations. Before you gave one dime, you'd have to feel comfortable about the whole world knowing that you support such and such a group and its mission.

If the group were remotely controversial or merely vulnerable to being made to seem so, you'd have to take that into consideration.

If you liked 99 percent of what the group did, you'd have to worry about being accused of supporting the other 1 percent.

The fear of public exposure of contributions would have a chilling effect on donors.

Plaintiffs attorney Stephen Tillery knows this. That's why he demanded donor lists and correspondence from the Heartland Institute and other nonprofit groups associated with the company he's suing: Syngenta, the makers of weedkiller atrazine.

Heartland president Joseph Bast worries that compulsory identification of donors will dry up half of his organization's support.

Late last month, the Illinois Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling that Heartland, et al. must comply with Tillery's demands for confidential records.

The ruling is an outrage that must not stand. Perhaps the U.S. Supreme Court will undo this bad decision.

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