With April 15 rapidly approaching, the federal agency that Americans ubiquitously dislike and fear – the Internal Revenue Service – is once again targeting nonprofit advocacy organizations in what may be an effort to censor political speech. Instead of trying to correct its internal bias and problems, the IRS is apparently trying to double down and stifle the political activity of opponents of the Obama administration and its policies. This effort is supported by some politicians such as Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), who wants the IRS to “redouble” its efforts to squelch conservative groups.
Both Congress and the Justice Department (supposedly) are investigating the actions of the IRS that were revealed by the Treasury Department’s Inspector General. The IG found that the IRS used “inappropriate criteria” to target Tea Party and other conservative organizations applying for tax-exempt status under Section 501(c)(4) of the Internal Revenue Code, delaying granting their exemptions until after the 2012 election. The IRS also demanded irrelevant, burdensome, and intrusive information from applicants, such as the names of their donors and members. Some of these organizations still have not received their exemptions from the IRS, and many have not been questioned by the FBI agents who are supposed to be investigating wrongdoing at the IRS despite the fact that nine months have elapsed since the alleged targeting was revealed.
Yet at the end of November, the IRS issued a “Notice of Proposed Rulemaking” that, if implemented, would broadly widen the definition of “candidate-related political activity” for 501(c)(4) nonprofit organizations, thereby restricting the ability of groups like the National Rifle Association to engage in political advocacy. Does this proposed regulation violate the First Amendment rights of nonprofits and their members? Even the Chicago Tribune thinks so, saying in a recent editorial that this rule would do “just the opposite” of what the First Amendment was intended to do: “promote an informed, aware and engaged citizenry.”
The proposed rule has drawn strong criticism from both liberal and conservative organizations, with the ACLU saying that it will “pose a chilling effect on issue advocacy.” The Sierra Club claims it will harm the organization’s “efforts that have nothing to do with politics,” including its “ability to communicate” with its members.
The Meese Center for Legal and Judicial Studies is hosting an event on Friday, Feb. 21, at noon, to discuss not only the ongoing investigation into the IRS’s activity, but the potential implications of the proposed regulation. The discussion will moderated by a former Federal Election Commissioner and the panelists will include Cleta Mitchell, who represents many of the organizations targeted by the IRS, Brad Smith, a former chairman of the Federal Election Commission and a noted expert on campaign finance law, and Eliana Johnson of National Review and Kimberley Strassel of the Wall Street Journal, two well-known journalists who have been covering this story since it was first made public.