The Corner

A Broad-Based IRS Assault on the Tea Party?

In the last 24 hours, my colleagues at the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) have been in contact with literally dozens of tea-party organizations that have received intrusive information demands from the IRS, demands that seriously implicate their First Amendment rights. These information demands follow tea-party requests for 501(c)(3) or 501(c)(4) status and include questions like the following:

Do you directly or indirectly communicate with members of legislative bodies?  If so, provide copies of the written communications and contents of other forms of communications.  

And

Please describe the associate group members and their role with your organization in further detail.  (a) How does your organization solicit members?  (b) What are the questions asked of potential members?  (c) What are the selection criteria for approval?  (d) Do you limit membership to other organizations exempt under 501(c)(4) of the Code?  (e) Provide the name, employer identification number, and address of the organizations.

And

Do you have a close relationship with any candidate for public office or political party?  If so describe fully the nature of that relationship.

The quoted requests are merely the tip of the iceberg. We’re still reviewing the IRS letters and will have more information as we complete our review. Each of these questions — in their content, breadth, and vagueness — implicate the free-speech rights of the affected tea-party groups. Moreover, such intrusive membership requests also run afoul of NAACP v. Alabama and implicate their rights to freedom of association.  

Critically, the demands we’ve seen are made not in response to complaints of wrongdoing but instead in response to applications for exemption. In other words, the IRS appears to be conditioning the grant of exemptions on the extensive violation of the tea-party groups’ fundamental First Amendment freedoms.

As I said, our review is ongoing, but the early indications are the IRS is using the routine process of seeking and granting tax exemptions to undertake a sweeping, top-down review of the internal workings of the tea-party movement in the United States. Such a review is far beyond its mission and directly implicates the First Amendment rights of all citizens.

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