By Tracy Dingmann
The decision handed down yesterday by the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver affirmed what most people already knew about nonprofits – that the advocacy in which they engage is a vital part of the important services they provide to their communities, as well as to society at large. (You can read a copy of the ruling here.)
When Secretary of State Mary Herrera, at the direction of Attorney General Gary King, ordered the SouthWest Organizing Project and New Mexico Youth Organized (a project of the Center for Civic Policy) to register as political committees back in 2008, the groups sued to assert their First Amendment rights. The case was never just about those two groups – it was always about the ability of all nonprofits to advocate for the rights of those they serve.
The state is already on the hook for more than $70,000 in attorney’s fees, plus untold more for the time state employees have spent on the case. That doesn’t count the money spent – fees on the part of the attorneys for the nonprofits and times spent by state workers – appealing it at the 10th Circuit for the past eleven months.
In the wake of yesterday’s decision by the higher court, Clearly New Mexico asked nonprofit leaders in New Mexico and nationwide to share their feelings about what it means for the continued good works of all nonprofits.
Here’s what they said:
Larry Ottinger, president of the Center for Lobbying in the Public Interest:
“Nonprofits are our nation’s best vehicles for broad civic engagement. The 10th Circuit’s decision in this important case means that nonprofit voices will not be silenced through unconstitutional acts intended to intimidate ordinary people from getting involved in public decisions that affect their lives. With the economic crisis and political polarization, nonprofit advocacy with and for those who need it most is more important than ever.”
Aaron Dorfman, executive director of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy:
“There is mounting evidence that when nonprofits engage in advocacy and community organizing, it brings clear benefits to communities. This decision affirms the important role of nonprofits in the civic life of our nation, and I hope it encourages organizations to be bold in their advocacy on behalf of those with the least wealth, opportunity and power. The decision also sends a clear message to grantmakers that it is perfectly appropriate to invest in nonprofits engaged in advocacy.”
Joan Lamunyon Sanford, director of the New Mexico Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice:
“Requiring non-profit organizations to register as political committees would have required us to list all of our members and supporters. As an organization that advocates for reproductive justice in an atmosphere of increasing violence and intimidation, our members would have had to choose between their personal safety or supporting women’s reproductive justice.”
Hank Hughes, executive director of the New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness:
“This decision by the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals reaffirms the legality of the important educational role that nonprofit organizations play in our democracy. This decision is important because it means nonprofit organizations can exercise free speech about their issues even when the information they have to share is not complimentary about people in power. And it means that nonprofits can tell it like it is without fear of being punished or closed down by people in the government who don’t like their message.”
Ron White, executive director of the New Mexico Association of Grantmakers:
“The 10th Circuit Court has provided, what I believe can genuinely be thought of as, a sane prescription for what the lower court described as a “politically infirm” action. Foundations, community groups, and nonprofits can now all breathe a sigh of relief, knowing that raising our voices on behalf of the environment or the marginalized or the need for support services for constituencies dear to our missions, is well within our rights. We should all be pleased that the right for nonprofits to engage in limited nonpartisan advocacy, which is guaranteed under our charter, has been sensibly affirmed with this ruling.”