Victory for Free Speech and Donor Privacy
Justice Dept Settles with Conservative Groups Wrongly Targeted by IRS
After years of litigation, US Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced on October 26 that the Justice Department has entered into settlements in two cases brought by conservative groups whose tax-exempt status had been significantly delayed by the IRS. One of these cases is Linchpins of Liberty v. United States, which comprises claims brought by 41 plaintiffs. The second case is NorCal Tea Party Patriots v. Internal Revenue Service, which is a class action suit that includes 428 members.
“It is now clear that during the last administration, the IRS began using inappropriate criteria to screen applications for 501(c) status. These criteria included names such as “Tea Party,” “Patriots,” or “9/12” or policy positions concerning government spending or taxes, education of the public to “make America a better place to live,” or statements criticizing how the country was being run. It is also clear these criteria disproportionately impacted conservative groups,” said Sessions.
The applications of these groups were subjected to additional scrutiny. The groups were even asked for information about their donors, information that Attorney General Sessions declared is not necessary to determine tax-exempt status. Thus, the Justice Department’s decision to settle with these groups and apologize to them is a victory for donor privacy.
This move by the Department of Justice marks an end to the intimidation game that the IRS was playing with conservative groups. The IRS was scrutinizing groups simply because they were right-leaning and was attempting to collect the names and personal information of the donors associated with those groups. This activity and requirement of donor disclosure had a definite chilling effect on the speech and association of private citizens. By withholding tax-exempt status and burying groups and their members with paperwork, it attempted to silence the voices of citizens.
Attorney General Sessions stated, “And it should also be without question that our First Amendment prohibits the federal government from treating groups differently based solely on their viewpoint or ideology.” The tax code should never be weaponized by the federal government into a tool for suppressing particular political perspectives.
It is commendable that the federal government is stepping back from its overreach and recognizing that the government does not need to invade the privacy of donors to determine the tax-exempt status of an organization.