The IRS as an agent for limiting the freedom of association

James Taranto writes in the The Wall Street Journal about a particularly egregious case of the Internal Revenue Service targeting a conservative group for extra scrutiny. In this case, the group is Friends of Abe, made up of Hollywood conservatives.

The news value to the [New York] Times may lie more in the nature of the organization than its trouble with the IRS. “In a famously left-leaning Hollywood, where Democratic fund-raisers fill the social calendar, Friends of Abe stands out as a conservative group that bucks the prevailing political winds,” reads the lead paragraph.

But Friends of Abe–as in Lincoln–has sought nonprofit status under Section 501(c)(3) of the U.S. Tax Code, which would allow it to collect tax-deductible contributions. The IRS has been reviewing the application for some two years, seeking information about meetings where politicians spoke. A 501(c)(3) is prohibited from engaging in campaign activity, such as hosting a fundraiser, but as the Times notes, “tax-exempt groups are permitted to invite candidates to speak at events.”

The most troubling revelation in the Times account is that at one point the IRS “included a demand–which was not met–for enhanced access to the group’s security-protected website, which would have revealed member names.” The Times points out that FOA “keeps a low profile and fiercely protects its membership list, to avoid what it presumes would result in a sort of 21st-century blacklist” and that “tax experts said that an organization’s membership list is information that would not typically be required.”

With the possible exception of academia, show business is about as totalitarian a subculture as you will find in America. Conservatives are a tiny minority, and they fear for their livelihoods if exposed. A few high-profile celebrities are exceptions–the Times mentions Gary Sinise, Jon Voight, Kelsey Grammer and Lionel Chetwynd–but for lesser-known actors and people who work in off-camera jobs, confidentiality is crucial. …

… FOA members have good reason to fear being identified to the IRS. Last year the agency was revealed to have leaked confidential donor information about the National Organization for Marriage to the Human Rights Campaign, an antagonist in the debate over same-sex marriage. HRC promptly posted the purloined information online. LifeSiteNews.com reported in October that congressional investigators had identified the leaker, “but in an ironic twist, the Internal Revenue Service is forbidden from disclosing whether the employee has been prosecuted, fired, or even reprimanded.”

The IRS’s intrusive tactics thus have a chilling effect on people who wish to exercise their First Amendment right of free association without attracting public attention–or, more precisely, the attention of vicious ideological antagonists. Even calling attention to those tactics can compound the problem, as illustrated by FOA’s need to reassure its members in the wake of the Times story. The gradual accretion of power by a vast administrative state, combined with an administration intolerant of dissent, has produced a clear and present danger to basic American freedoms.

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