Free Speech or Regulated Silence?

Posted: May 26, 2013 12:00 AM

How did our founders ever manage to establish a republic committed to free speech and the rights of the individual without a Federal Election Commission to regulate that speech and force disclosure of the speaker?

Not only did the Sons of Liberty and other patriots lack a functioning FEC to protect them from “big-money interests,” many of the political communications of the era, including works as consequential as The Federalist Papers, were put forth anonymously.

Consider organizing like-minded people in and between the colonies without TV, radio, the Internet, smart phones and, most important of all, without the Internal Revenue Service to police the people forming non-profit groups and to harass and delay those advocating for more freedom or justice or limited government or – as the specific IRS discrimination policy created by someone somewhere in the bowels of the bureaucracy (but surely without even a smidgeon of bias or bad intent) stipulated – those who dare to “criticize how the country is run.”

Imagine that. Our founders certainly did. So, they gave us the First Amendment. They neglected to give us the FEC or the IRS.

Granted, IRS officials have apologized – in modern-day fashion, which is to say they have not apologized and have shown no contrition at all. While the official story keeps changing as to when this unfair targeting and blocking of grassroots conservative and libertarian groups began, they continually assure us that it has stopped and will not re-occur.

Yet, how can we tell if the “system” or the “culture” has changed?

The IRS tactic of demanding the donor lists of many pro-liberty groups has been roundly condemned, yet Steven Miller, the still acting but resigned IRS Commissioner, told Congress after the scandal broke that “donors can be relevant” to determining 501(c)4 status. How so? Could a non-profit group be a legally valid 501(c)4 if Mr. Jones gives money, but not be valid if Mr. Smith donates instead or in addition? There is no possible way to square such a stance with equal justice under the law.

Does this mean the IRS has a list of American citizens whose contributions to non-profit organizations are considered grounds for harassing, blocking and denying the group legal status?

Had the British imposed such a system on the colonies, I’m certain that a donation from wealthy John Hancock would have been the kiss of death.

For as long as men have held power over others, that power has been abused. It really shouldn’t be so shocking. Yet, what is shocking with this scandal is the willingness of many on the Leftwing of punditry to excuse or even justify this abuse by the IRS.

MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry actually told her national audience (both viewers) that “no one was fundamentally harmed” by the IRS’s targeting of Obama-unapproved applicants for tax-exempt status. Being blocked from organizing, having your rights trampled on for years – across two election cycles – is no big deal, apparently, when done to one’s political opponents.

Detestable jester Bill Maher asked, with adolescent seriousness, “Is it unreasonable [for the IRS] to target an anti-tax group?”

The drag on citizen participation in politics and government caused by the recent scandalous behavior of the IRS is merely standard operating procedure at the FEC. That’s why attorneys Benjamin Barr and Stephen Klein with the Wyoming Liberty Group filed a lawsuit, Free Speech v. Federal Election Commission, against the vague and overbroad FEC regulations that effectively shut down a great deal of speech by grassroots groups lacking big money or batteries of lawyers and accountants.

“We are now at the point where individuals must register and report with the government just to criticize it,” said Barr, the group’s senior counsel. Added Klein, “The government weaves a web of complex regulations that restricts politics to so-called professionals and shuts out individuals who just want to speak publically about political issues and those in power.”

That basic suppression by the FEC can also be applied in a politically targeted manner against one’s opponents, which is precisely what was alleged back in the 1990s. The FEC launched widespread investigations of the Christian Coalition and a number of other conservative or limited-government groups, including U.S. Term Limits.

The Christian Coalition was cleared of any wrongdoing, but it cost the organization hundreds of thousands of dollars and created a major diversion. After forcing U.S. Term Limits to produce numerous documents and spend tens of thousands on legal fees, the FEC declined to expand the investigation or to formerly charge us with any wrongdoing.

What supposedly sparked the investigation was our communications informing the people of Oklahoma that incumbent Congressman Mike Synar opposed term limits. He lost in the Democratic Party primary . . . to a guy who spent less than $3,000.

That's the sort of speech the folks in Washington want to regulate (read: stop).

Funny, Lois Lerner, the director of the IRS’s Exempt Organizations Division at the heart of the current IRS scandal, who last week took the Fifth rather than testify before Congress, just happened to be head of the Enforcement Office at the Federal Election Commission back in the 1990s. What a coincidence.

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