The revenuers and the First Amendment

13 May

capitolRepublicans are screaming, and so are a lot of Democrats. We all should join them.

Stories in the past week have revealed that the IRS office whose job it is to evaluate prospective non-profits’ requests for tax-exempt status has apparently given extra scrutiny to groups affiliated with the Tea Party and to other groups that appear to criticize the way the government is run or whose purpose is to educate people about how to make America better. While that encompasses many conservative groups, it also gathers in some liberal ones.

Not a good idea, IRS! Down right unconstitutional, actually. Groups from every part of the political spectrum have a right to “educate” the public in whatever direction the group thinks would make America better. It’s part of the First Amendment protection for free expression.

As the story has progressed, it’s become clear that the IRS has a legitimate reason to question all applications for tax-exempt status. The law says such status applies to groups engaged primarily in social welfare work, but a lot of groups seeking that status these days are concerned primarily with trying to influence elections and politicians. Sure, they have every right to make their political voices heard, but that doesn’t make them social welfare organizations and doesn’t excuse them from paying taxes.

Some IRS officials said the lower-level workers doing the extensive checks on groups they thought might not qualify for tax exempt status were using the words “tea party” as a sort of shortcut to help them decide where to dig deeper. But then we also hear that they were looking at any groups critical of government or trying to spread the word about how they think it should be made better.

Not good either way. I have few sympathies with the Tea Party and its views. But its supporters have every right to spread those views without government interference.

It’s worth remembering that the Bush administration created the IRS office that’s examining tax-exemption requests, so conspiracy theories blaming the current mess on President Obama have no legs to stand on. On the other hand, Mr. Obama is in charge now and needs to be sure this gets straightened out.

It may be that some of the groups applying for tax exempt status don’t quality for it. But in the process of reaching that conclusion, the IRS dare not do anything that even looks as if it’s singling out particular political points of view.

As the guys who wrote the Constitution recognized, we can’t let whichever group is in power make it hard for the bunch out of power to make its voice heard. That idea appeals to our principles but also to our self-interest because it’s not only possible but likely that I may be part of today’s “ins” but tomorrow’s “outs.” And I’d like my right to free expression either way, thank you very much.

Unfortunately, this is going to take up a lot of time the Congress could be spending on urgent policy decisions. If the Obama administration will take the lead and fix the mess, we might be able to get on to the rest of the federal agenda sooner rather than later. But the issue in question is of such fundamental importance that we can’t just let it go.

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