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Is Philanthropy A Form of Free Speech?

Is Philanthropy A Form of Free Speech?

by Bill High

I came across this fascinating interview sometime last year and am finally getting around to sharing it here. Philanthropy Roundtable interviewed Nadine Strossen, a former president of the American Civil Liberties Union, in late 2020. Strossen had recently published her book, Hate: Why We should Resist it with Free Speech, Not Censorship.

What caught my attention in the interview were Strossen’s bold support for free speech and that she argues that philanthropy is a form of free speech.

She points out that restricting free speech will always silence marginalized groups:

“If you allow restrictions on speech where there are sharp differences in viewpoint, then of course over time it’s predictable those who are likeliest to be silenced are marginalized groups. That is exactly the pattern that we’ve seen throughout history and around the world.

“It seems ironic to me that those who support censoring hate speech usually start with the premise that there is overwhelming oppression built into our society—systemic injustice. Well, if they are right, the last thing they should want is to hand over to our government more discretionary powers to discriminate.”

Strossen’s interview pushes back on some of the big ideas around systemic injustice and government and philanthropy’s role in addressing these things. We stand at a critical moment in the history of our society and of philanthropy. Where we land on these questions may well determine the fate of our country.

With such high stakes, it’s vital to hear a range of voices and opinions on the major conflicts of the day. In a healthy society, we’ll vigorously debate ideas instead of shutting down the conversation through censorship, or self-censorship.


More on Censorship and Giving

Here are a few more excerpts from the interview:

“Censorship is instinctively appealing. What’s the point in allowing people to express an idea we think is obnoxious or dangerous? Opinion surveys show that large percentages of people support censoring any idea they consider offensive… I believe that censoring will do more harm than good, both in eroding basic liberties and in terms of countering bad ideas in public life.”

“Censorship is both ineffective and counterproductive. Ineffective because there’s no way we can completely eliminate all of the targeted ideas.”

In response to the question on whether she considers private giving as a form of free speech, Strossen says plainly, “Absolutely. And, much more importantly, so does the U.S. Supreme Court!”

In response to whether giving should remain private or anonymous, Strossen agrees and says, “Anything that might be considered—or made—controversial. If your employer, or your customers, or your clients, or your friends can be made through public disclosure and agitation to feel your private giving goes to an unworthy cause, there will be an enormous ‘chilling effect,’ as the courts call it. This can really impinge free-speech rights.”

On the pressure to force nonprofit and for-profit boards to have an ideal composition, she says: “Both practices strike me as unconstitutional, as unwarranted government intervention in private-sector activity. I would oppose those kinds of demands in the corporate sphere, and even more strongly in the philanthropic sphere. We’re talking freedom of association here. . . when you interfere with the members and leaders, you interfere with the mission—that’s completely inconsistent with fundamental Constitutional freedoms.

What do you think? Is philanthropy a form of free speech? Should donor privacy remain the law of the land? Do you agree that there will be a chilling effect if donor privacy goes away?



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Published January 10, 2022

Topics: Culture Commentary

American ValuesChristian PhilanthropyDonorsMajor Donors

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