The most essential guarantee of our freedom is the First Amendment, which bars the government from using its power against citizens for speaking out.
It is especially important that politicians refrain from training the Internal Revenue Service against citizens and groups that espouse views challenging those of government officials. Unfortunately, this basic understanding of the importance of protecting speech seems to have been lost on some in Washington in recent years.
The ostensibly nonpartisan IRS, we learned years ago, subjected especially conservative nonprofits to scrutiny and harassment in 2010 when they applied for tax-exempt status. When the news of this first came out, President Obama denounced it, properly noting: "It should not matter what political stripe you're from. The fact of the matter is, the IRS has to operate with absolute integrity." But his Justice Department assigned one of President Obama's campaign contributors to investigate the matter, and nothing came of it. Complicating matters was the IRS's destruction of the emails of Lois Lerner, the official responsible.
All this seemed a frightening assault on the First Amendment, but recent developments suggest a wider campaign against speech.
Judicial Watch, a nonpartisan educational foundation, recently obtained information showing that the IRS wanted to go even further than thwarting the activities of conservative groups: some in the agency appear to have wanted to criminalize them.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., at a public hearing, had raised the idea of going after groups that gain tax-exempt status improperly. According to newly released documents from the Department of Justice and the IRS, in October 2010, representatives from those agencies met to discuss pursuing criminal charges against conservative groups that were said to be "posing" as tax-exempt social welfare organizations.
According to a memo recounting the meeting, revealed through a Freedom of Information Act request by Judicial Watch, the participants tried to come up with "several possible theories to bring criminal charges under FEC (Federal Election Commission) law." That is to say, the IRS (and Justice Department), it appears, were not content to merely gum up the works when groups tried to obtain the tax-exempt status; they actually hoped to put the groups' leaders in jail.
Certainly, citizens must heed campaign finance and tax laws or face the consequences. But those in government must be careful not use or abuse their power against citizens simply for advancing ideas they oppose.
The documents reveal the IRS transferred the supposedly confidential tax returns of some 113,000 conservative nonprofits to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. According to Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., former chair of the House Oversight Committee, "This revelation likely means that the IRS ... violated federal tax law by transmitting this information to the Justice Department," which prohibits such blanket transfers.
Those entrusted with enforcing the law — and those in Congress who provide oversight — must take whatever steps are necessary to ensure that speech is protected, whether we agree with it or not, and that those who try to suppress it are held accountable. By now, it is clear that a special counsel who is independent is called for to look into the IRS's handling of these matters.
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