Rhode Island’s campaign finance laws are under attack from a conservative interest group. The Public’s Radio political analyst Scott MacKay says a successful legal challenge to the law requiring disclosure of donors would be a blow to government transparency.

Rhode Island’s Gaspee Project and the Illinois Opportunity Project, a right-wing Chicago non-profit, have sued the Rhode Island Board of Elections in federal court. These groups want the court to strike down campaign finance laws that force them to report the identity of political donors.

The lawsuit rests on the Constitutional guarantee of freedoms of speech and association. “Freedom of  speech,” the suit says, includes the right to “engage in anonymous issue advocacy.”

The groups object to a state law that requires a so-called independent political expenditure of more than $1,000 that isn’t directly linked with a campaign to be publicly disclosed. The conservatives argue that requiring public disclosure of this money would subject donors to “harassment, career damage” and even death threats.

These challenges to campaign finance from conservatives and those who oppose public employee unions aren’t new. It’s a legal strategy that has been used to strike down disclosure laws from Alaska to Vermont.

Some history is in order. After the 1970s travesty of Richard Nixon’s Watergate, which was fueled in part by secret money, Congress and the states passed measures to limit campaign expenditures and require making donors public. Rhode Island further strengthened its laws after the 1990s credit union collapse, which was caused in part by insider dealing at the Statehouse.

Then in 2010 things changed. The U.S. Supreme Court shattered the landscape of campaigns and elections. In the famous Citizens United case, the high court allowed corporations and outside groups to spend unlimited amounts of money on political campaigns. This made an already fraught system worse, lubricating the path for politicians to become beholden to big campaign financiers, rather than the needs of voters. That decision, however, did leave the need for disclosure alone.

A Supreme Court justice as conservative as Antonin Scalia opined that,” requiring people to stand up in public for their political acts fosters civic courage, without which democracy is doomed.”

In 2012, Rhode Island, along with some other states, decided to strengthen the disclosure laws by enacting the $1,000 threshold for political advocacy that isn’t coordinated with a candidate. A good example of this would be a mailer dropped just before an election that described a candidate who supports abortion rights as a Baby killer. Or a similar message that describes an anti-abortion candidate as one who seeks a return to the days of back alley abortions.

Such messages just days before an election makes is specifically about the campaign, says John Marion of Common Cause Rhode Island, which lobbies for open government. With the law, “voters would be left in the dark as to who is trying to influence their vote.”

Independent issue money inevitably spills into elections.

Voters ought to know where political money comes from. When it comes to campaigns, the more public information out there gives voters more data with which to make their choices. It’s bad enough that Citizens United allowed unlimited corporate and labor money into our elections. Now, conservatives want a layer of secrecy on top of the spend-all-you want regime.

One of the grand ironies of all this is that these conservative groups, including Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity, regularly rail against Statehouse secrecy and the back-room Democratic leadership deals they assert hurt Rhode Islanders.

Even Republican U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell once favored strong disclosure provisions. When he was running for reelection in 1996, McConnell told his hometown newspaper in Kentucky that he “supported disclosure of all election-related spending, including spending by independent groups.”

Things have gotten worse since Citizens United. At a time of false narratives on social media and Russian intervention into elections, the case for open and honest disclosure of political money has gotten stronger.

In the immortal words of Justice Louis Brandeis, when it comes to government, “sunshine is the greatest disinfectant.” That’s still true.