Sean Parnell: A win for privacy in WV

Americans have understandable expectations of privacy when it comes to our personal matters.

For example, we don’t want our neighbors, employers, friends, family or complete strangers to be able to access our medical and banking records, and we certainly don’t want the government to be able to demand this information and then disclose these records to the public.

There have been strong legal protections for many years for much of this sort of information that helps to ensure our private affairs remain just that, at least unless we choose to disclose them to others. And thanks to a bill recently passed by the West Virginia Legislature and signed by Gov. Jim Justice, citizens’ charitable and civic involvement are now free from prying eyes, as well.

Under the Protect Our Right to Unite Act (Senate Bill 16), a public official can’t simply demand that a church, charity, trade association, social welfare group or other nonprofit organization turn over a list of its donors, volunteers or others affiliated with it. Just as important, if any government agency or official does happen to come into possession of such lists, it would be required to treat that information just as confidentially as it would any medical or banking records it might wind up with.

The new law doesn’t just protect the personal privacy of West Virginians who contribute to charities and other civic causes, it helps to nurture and protect a vibrant and independent civil society. While many are not shy about announcing their support of and membership in specific groups, others prefer to keep their giving and volunteer work private for a wide range of reasons.

For example, some might fear religious discrimination while others follow religious dictates that favor anonymous giving (the Gospel of Matthew records Jesus admonishing his followers to “Take heed that ye do not your alms before men,” and other faiths also encourage giving anonymously). Some simply don’t want the spotlight that often comes with generous giving.

In some cases, people fear their involvement with controversial causes will lead to retribution if it is publicly known — in recent years, many Americans have lost their jobs or been harassed by extremists when their giving has been revealed.

Without this new protection for citizen privacy, some would feel pressure to withhold their support and involvement, leading to a diminished civil society.

West Virginia’s campaign finance disclosure laws are not affected by the new law, so all donations to political campaigns and parties that are currently disclosed will continue to be disclosed. It also doesn’t prevent any other disclosures that West Virginia nonprofits are currently required to make and allows law enforcement to obtain this sort of information if it is part of a legitimate investigation.

The Protect Our Right to Unite Act received broad bipartisan support, passing unanimously in the West Virginia Senate and nearly 3-1 in the House of Delegates. Groups supporting the bill included the American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia and the state chapter of Americans for Prosperity.

West Virginians who want to choose for themselves whether to be public or private in the charities and organizations they support now may do so confident that an overzealous official won’t be able to pry into their affairs or disclose the groups they associate with. It’s a win for personal privacy and also for an independent and vibrant civil society.

Sean Parnell is senior fellow for philanthropic freedom at The Philanthropy Roundtable, which seeks to protect, defend and promote philanthropic excellence.