New Rules For Social Welfare Groups Is Attack On Free Speech
By ADAM BRANDON
Posted 06:19 PM ET
Last Tuesday, as Americans began to turn their attention from politics to the Thanksgiving holiday, the Obama administration quietly proposed new guidelines to restrict the political activities allowed by tax-exempt 501(c)(4) organizations.
Under current rules, 501(c)(4) entities exist to educate the public and promote "social welfare" causes, and they can't work primarily as campaign organizations. But Washington fears that Americans will better understand our constitution and the fiscal challenges facing our nation.
An informed citizen is an empowered citizen.
The Obama administration will claim that the proposed changes are cleaning up Washington, but this is really just a continuation of the scandalous targeting by the IRS of non-profit groups in the lead-up to the 2012 election.
Conservative organizations faced wildly disproportionate application delays, invasive audits and unreasonable demands for an outrageous amount of personal information, violating the privacy of employees and donors alike.
The IRS now wants to go one step further, and institutionalize the penalization of non-profit groups for exercising their First Amendment rights to political speech. This could have devastating consequences.
A study by the American Enterprise Institute concluded that the IRS targeting of Tea Party groups in 2012 could have cost Republicans between 5 million and 8.5 million votes.
Bearing in mind that the president's margin of victory was just 5 million votes, it is clear that this sort of behavior can have drastic effects on legislative outcomes. Clearly, we should be wary of putting still more power into the hands of government agents.
The rise of the Tea Party and other fiscal conservative networks across America has demonstrated that non-profit organizations are having a considerable impact on public policy.
That the Obama administration is seeking to curtail the activities of grassroots organizations is a testament to the power and success of the freedom movement.
While the proposed IRS guidelines try to cloak their effects in the mantle of objectivity, stressing "social welfare" as the singular function of 501(c)(4)s, the definition of social welfare is much open to interpretation.
There can be little doubt that the president and his administration, as well as establishment Republicans entrenched in an atmosphere of earmarks and kickbacks, will specify a definition that includes all support for expanding the role of the state, while excluding all opposition to the same.
Allowing those in power to define the rules of the game to their own advantage is antithetical to what American democracy is all about.
In 2010, the Supreme Court issued its ruling on the landmark Citizens United case. The court wisely upheld the freedom of political speech by citizens collectively organizing to voice their opinions in the form of campaign contributions.
That decision remains immensely relevant today, as the IRS attempts to limit the ability of individuals to take political action through 501(c)(4) organizations and violate the privacy of donors who fear persecution for their political beliefs.
It is not at all unreasonable to fear both social and institutionalized repercussions for "unacceptable" political views. Donor anonymity is crucial to preventing intimidation and other attempts to limit speech, a principle that goes back to the civil rights movement when donors faced intimidation and suppression by those who feared what they might accomplish.
Today, the fight for equal treatment continues, as Americans find themselves singled out and targeted based on their political views.
Establishment politicians from both parties have an interest in suppressing groups who threaten their comfortable and familiar dominance of government. Outsiders, with their "radical" ideals of sticking to principle and keeping promises, represent an existential threat to Washington's way of life.
It is imperative that political activity by ordinary citizens, whether through the medium of campaign donations or involvement with 501(c)(4) organizations, remain free from persecution, intimidation and suppression.
The IRS' proposed guidelines will restrict ordinary citizens' First Amendment rights, while protecting special interests.
We must do everything in our power to prevent entrenched politicians from abusing their authority and shielding themselves from accountability and the democratic process.
• Brandon is executive vice president of FreedomWorks, a nonprofit organization that mobilizes grass-roots activists nationwide.