Fundraising, Speech Issues Targeted In 3 State Legislatures

March 1, 2016       Mark Hrywna      

After battling the Oklahoma Attorney General in court last year, it appears the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) has another fight looming, this time with the state’s legislature, which may spill over into neighboring Missouri.

House Bill 2250 would prohibit any “animal rights charitable organization” from raising funds in Oklahoma intended for use outside of the state and forbids any “animal rights” organization from raising money in the state for “political purposes inside or outside the state.”

State Rep. Brian Renegar (D-17), a veterinarian and owner of an animal hospital, and Sen. Larry Boggs (R-7), co-founder of Eagles Rest Sanctuary and former member of the Oklahoma Farm Bureau, sponsored H.B. 2250, which could come up for a House vote today.

The bill was released from the Agriculture Committee by a 12-0 vote and amended on Friday by Renegar to exclude organizations “operated primarily to benefit or further the welfare of companion animals.” The amendment, he said, satisfies concerns of PetSmart Charities, which awards grants to local groups.

“I feel very strongly that I do not want some out-of-state animal rights group to tell me how to practice veterinary medicine. Furthermore, I don’t want them to tell my cattlemen how to handle and raise cattle,” Renegar said in a telephone interview yesterday. “One of the intended consequences of this bill, I want people to donate to local humane groups. They’re the ones that are the boots on the ground and do the most good for these animals,” he said.

Rep. Charlie Davis (R-128), the sponsor of a similar bill in Missouri, expressed similar concerns about keeping local donations in the region, conveying what he said he’s hearing from constituents. “Money raised in Missouri should stay in the state, or the vast majority of it,” he said.

Davis said the Humane Society’s name is confusing for donors who believe that contributions go to benefit local animal shelters and not a large national organization. “There’s a reasonable sense of accountability that those nonprofits use [donations] wisely,” he said. If the measure passes, Davis envisions more legislation to address issues of nonprofit accountability, citing recent criticism about Wounded Warrior Project (WWP) and its spending practices.

“Silliness.” That’s how Errol Copilevitz described the legislation. A founder of Kansas City, Mo.-based Copilevitz & Canter, he has argued charity-related First Amendment cases before the Supreme Court of the United States on behalf of nonprofits. The bills are “clearly content-based regulation of speech,” said Copilevitz, whose firm represents almost 400 nonprofits.

“I base my opinion not on whether it’s constitutional; if it’s deemed unconstitutional, we can backtrack and not do it,” Davis said during a telephone interview this morning. “It’s up to judges to determine constitutionality,” he said. “What my issue is has nothing to do with speech, it has to do with where those monies are going,” Davis said, with nonprofits advertising in a way that donors think their dollars go to local veterans or animal organizations. It’s part of a campaign to educate people to give locally rather than to a bureaucratic organization outside of Missouri, he said.

The Oklahoma legislation, HSUS argues, is based on the false claim that the organization raised $1 million to support disaster response after the Moore tornado in May 2013 but only spent $100,000 in the Sooner State. HSUS counters that it did not conduct any fundraising for the Moore tornado.

HSUS has called the legislation “patently unconstitutional and discriminatory.” The “absurdly broad language is intended to prevent Oklahoma citizens from donating to national or state animal-oriented groups that pursue legislation to prevent dogs from being baked in hot cars or left outside to freeze.” President and CEO Wayne Pacelle said the legislation, along with a similar measure introduced in Missouri, is just another effort by agribusiness lobbyists and supports of “Right to Farm” amendments.

HSUS has said the legislation would block fundraising activities by other nonprofits already regulated by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) that fundraise nationally, including ASPCA, World Wildlife Fund (WWF), and The Nature Conservancy.

In Rhode Island, the House Committee on Corporations is scheduled to hold a hearing today on House Bill 7322, which would require professional solicitors to make mandatory disclosures of the percentage of contribution retained by the fundraiser. In a letter to committee Chairman Brian Patrick Kennedy, Copilevitz said the mandatory disclosures would constitute unconstitutional compelled speech that violates the 1st and 14th amendments, in addition to a section of the state constitution.

“The United States Supreme Court has repeatedly held that professionals who are compensated to speak on behalf of charitable organizations are entitled to the same First Amendment protection as if the charitable organization was speaking for itself,” Copilevitz wrote. The Rhode Island measure, he argued, “would harm organizations that rely on the expertise of professional assistance in spreading their message and advocating their cause by imposing forced speech requirements on their message.”