Supreme Court hears arguments over whether nonprofits must reveal donors

Nonprofits claimed a California law would discourage people from donating

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The Supreme Court on Monday heard oral arguments in a case over the constitutionality of a California law requiring charities and nonprofit organizations to disclose their top donors to the state attorney general's office.

Challengers of the law, the Americans for Prosperity Foundation and the Thomas More Law Center, claim that it infringes on the First Amendment right to free association because it discourages people from donating.

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"This demand casts a profound nationwide chill and it does so for no good reason," Derek Shaffer, attorney for the Americans for Prosperity Foundation said during his oral argument. The organization has been linked to conservative billionaire Charles Koch and his late brother David.

During the arguments, Justice Clarence Thomas illustrated the idea of a chilling effect by asking how it might impact potential donors if an organization had been described by others as racist.

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Justice Stephen Breyer, meanwhile, pointed to how the current case could impact other, more politically charged situations.

Addressing acting U.S. Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar, Breyer asked, "How would you distinguish disclosure in the campaign finance context?" 

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Prelogar argued that campaign finance raises different interests than those in the current case. When it comes to the standard of review that should be utilized in examining the law, however, Prelogar argued that "the same standard of review applies to disclosure requirements across the board."

A federal appeals court in San Francisco had previously ruled that the disclosed donor information serves the important state goal of preventing charities from committing fraud and was unlikely to be released publicly.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.