LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
Here's a question: What do Republican strategist Karl Rove and Civil Rights icon Rosa Parks have in common. The answer is: A landmark Supreme Court ruling from 1958 protecting the First Amendment rights of dissident groups. The case is rooted in the Montgomery bus boycott initiated by Parks in 1955. And it's likely to loom large in 2013 for the new class of million-dollar political donors.
NPR's Peter Overby reports.
PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: This election year, secret money played a bigger role than in any other presidential campaign since Richard Nixon's. The nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation says that secretly funded groups spent well over $200 million, four-fifths of it helped Republicans. So it's not surprising that conservatives want to keep donors' identities secret. They say it's essential to safeguard donors from harassment and intimidation.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell once favored sweeping transparency for political money - not anymore. In a major speech this year, he brought up the plight of a million-dollar donor to a superPAC supporting Mitt Romney.
SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL: People were digging through his divorce records, cable television hosts were going after him on the air, and bloggers were harassing his kids.
OVERBY: Karl Rove's group, Crossroads GPS, was a leader in the secret fundraising. He said on Fox News that the disclosure advocates have a hidden agenda.
KARL ROVE: They want to intimidate people into not giving to these conservative efforts.
OVERBY: And here is where Karl Rove and Parks cross paths. In defending secret money, Rove invokes that Supreme Court case, NAACP versus Alabama. He lines up Crossroads GPS on the same side as Rosa Parks and the NAACP. And he says the transparency advocates are no different than the segregationists.
ROVE: I think it's shameful. I think it's a sign of their fear of democracy. And it's interesting that they have antecedents, and the antecedents are a bunch of segregationist attorney generals trying to shut down the NAACP.
OVERBY: To elaborate on this argument, aides to Rove recommended Heritage Foundation legal fellow Hans von Spakovsky.
HANS VON SPAKOVSKY: You look at the kind of intimidation and harassment that has occurred in the past year or two, towards conservative political donors and it makes you realize that the Supreme Court got it right.
OVERBY: But the question is whether the two situations are similar.
ROSA PARKS: The time had just come when I had been pushed as far as I could stand to be pushed, I suppose.
OVERBY: This is Rosa Parks a few months after the bus boycott began, telling Pacifica Radio how she had refused to give up her seat on the bus.
PARKS: They placed me under arrest.
OVERBY: As the boycott grew, Montgomery law enforcement brought charges against Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other leaders and arsonists firebombed their homes and churches. Across the state, rioters blocked an NAACP bid to desegregate the University of Alabama. A mob chased the one African-American student, chanting: Let's kill her.
The university acted. It suspended the black student and then expelled her.
Meanwhile, state Attorney General John Patterson subpoenaed the NAACP's records of its members in Alabama.
JOHN PATTERSON: The NAACP is the biggest enemy that the people of this state have.
OVERBY: When the case finally reached the Supreme Court, the justices ruled in favor of the NAACP. They said the group faced attacks both from government officials and from lawbreakers, and that revealing its members would endanger their First Amendment rights.
DALE HO: One of the reasons why the NAACP required special protections at that time, they were a minority group that law enforcement couldn't or wouldn't protect.
OVERBY: Dale Ho is a lawyer at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. He says conservatives are creating a false symmetry between those civil rights activists and today's millionaire donors.
HO: In none of these recent cases that I'm aware of in the past five years has anyone ever alleged that law enforcement couldn't protect them adequately.
OVERBY: At the University of Chicago Law School, constitutional scholar Geoffrey Stone scoffs at the conservative argument.
GEOFFREY STONE: They're a bunch of overly sensitive, thin-skinned billionaires who want to be able to have profound influence on the political process without being in any way accountable.
OVERBY: In the years since the NAACP versus Alabama decision, courts have never extended it to cover donors in the usual conservative-liberal, Republican-Democratic debates.
A related case did go to the Supreme Court in 2010. Challenging a state disclosure law, it sought to withhold the names of people who had petitioned against gay marriage. The court said they had no right to secrecy. Justice Antonin Scalia was scathing.
JUSTICE ANTONIN SCALIA: Running a democracy takes a certain amount of civic courage. And the First Amendment does not protect you from criticism, or even nasty phone calls.
OVERBY: But von Spakovsky says that politically generous billionaires nowadays need protection, just like civil rights workers 60 years ago.
SPAKOVSKY: I don't think that a constitutional right, like Freedom of Association, should depend on how much money you have.
OVERBY: It's an argument that seems sure to stir passionate debate this coming year as the disclosure battles take shape in Congress and the courts.
Peter Overby NPR News, Washington.