Nonprofit Fundraiser Sues Connecticut Over Burdensome, Invasive Regulations

Nonprofit Fundraiser Sues Connecticut Over Burdensome, Invasive Regulations
U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut, in New Haven, Conn. (screenshot/Google Maps)
Matthew Vadum

A West Virginia-based nonprofit fundraiser has filed a civil rights lawsuit against Connecticut over that state’s unusually burdensome rules that require him to tell state officials what he’s planning to say to prospective donors a full 20 days in advance of donor contact.

The lawsuit, Kissel v. Seagull, was filed on Jan. 31 in federal court in Connecticut.

The plaintiff is Adam Kissel of Charleston, West Virginia. The defendant, Michelle H. Seagull, is being sued in her official capacity as commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Consumer Protection.

Daniel M. Ortner, an attorney with the Sacramento-based Pacific Legal Foundation, a public interest law firm that is representing Kissel free of charge, said Connecticut is “restricting the ability of people to go out and fundraise money for charities.”

While most states require a paid solicitor to register, and some require the posting of a bond, Connecticut goes far beyond what most states require, he told The Epoch Times in an interview.

“The First Amendment guarantees the right to freedom of speech. The Supreme Court has made it very clear that fundraising is a form of protected speech. It is ultimately advocacy.”

Connecticut requires independent paid solicitors to inform the state in advance when they plan to talk to a potential donor and what exactly they will say, and then report to the government the name of everyone who gives any amount. Going off script could lead to a $5,000 fine and a year in prison. Connecticut law also requires fundraisers to maintain files containing private information about donors and to make that information available to the state on demand.

Kissel’s argument is that under the First Amendment, the government can’t demand that he tell them in advance what he is going to say and provide it with a script before he can speak; nor can the government deprive citizens of their privacy when they donate to a nonprofit.

According to PLF, Kissel has extensive experience in higher education policy and philanthropy, previously serving as deputy assistant secretary for higher education programs at the U.S. Department of Education. Before that, he worked for several charities, including Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, the Institute for Humane Studies, the Charles Koch Foundation, and Philanthropy Roundtable. He is now a senior fellow at the Cardinal Institute for West Virginia Policy, a nonprofit that researches, develops, and communicates free-market economic public policies for West Virginia.

The Philadelphia-based nonprofit known as the Jack Miller Center, which educates students about America’s founding principles and history, agreed to pay Kissel to fundraise as an independent contractor. Some of the prospective individual and institutional donors are located in Connecticut.

Kissel believes the state’s law hinders his ability to do his work.

“Connecticut law imposes significant costs and substantially chills his speech,” according to the legal complaint. The 20-day-notice requirement “kills the opportunity for spontaneous expression or outreach based on topical events.”

“Fundraisers are not only restricted from speaking freely, the state also compels them to speak and to communicate to each prospective donor the exact nature of their compensation agreement with a charity,” the complaint continues. “This requirement is directly contrary to Supreme Court precedent and yet remains the law of the State of Connecticut.”

“Urging others to support charitable causes by making financial contributions is a time-honored tradition that is fully protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. That is true whether or not the fundraiser receives compensation for his advocacy. But the State of Connecticut imposes a series of barriers which restrict both the ability of paid charitable fundraisers to speak freely and the ability of individual donors to give to these organizations anonymously.”

Ortner added: “What Connecticut is doing goes well beyond anything the Supreme Court has ever upheld for these kinds of restrictions on fundraising. There is no precedent for the idea that the state can require 20-days advance notice before you can speak or that they can make you tell them what you’re going to say before you speak.”

“If there is a problem, some kind of fraud, or wrongful conduct, the state can always go after people afterward and prosecute people for violating the law, but they can’t in advance assume that you’re going to break the law even before you speak and make you jump through all these hoops.”

On Jan. 8, the Supreme Court agreed to hear an appeal from two conservative charities that fundraise in California, challenging demands by that state for a list of financial contributors, which they argue violate the two tax-exempt groups’ constitutionally protected freedom of association, as The Epoch Times previously reported. The case is Americans for Prosperity Foundation v. Becerra.