The left abandons the First Amendment

By Grant Bosse on May 20, 2013
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The left’s simmering disdain for free speech went public this week. The Obama Administration’s abuse of power finally turned much of the left-leaning press corps against this increasingly Nixonian White House.

The final straw was the revelation that the Justice Department secretly seized two months of phone records from 20 separate Associated Press phone lines. The seizure was part of a criminal investigation into leaks revealed in May 2012 AP story on the foiled Underwear Bomb plot.

Bosse HeadshotThe AP called the secret subpoena “a massive and unprecedented intrusion”, as the records included AP bureaus not involved in the story, as well as the home and cell phones of several reporters and editors.

This wasn’t merely a fishing expedition. It was fishing with dynamite. Attorney General Eric Holder could have narrowed his subpoena, but the breadth and initial secrecy of the subpoena serves as a warning to those thinking of talking to the press.

Closer to home, Senator Kelly Ayotte gave the Commencement Address at New England College in Henniker yesterday. Senior Erin Faith Page started a petition to rescind Ayotte’s invitation, deeming her a “supporter of homophobic, transphobic, misogynistic, and sexist policies”.

NEC Vice-President for Academic Affairs Mark Watman said Ayotte’s invitation would stand but that “we’re incredibly proud of Erin and her political ideology and her stance and what she’s learned at New England College for self-advocacy.”

Hogwash. Page’s petition wasn’t about her political ideology or self-advocacy, whatever that means. She was trying to kick a dissenting voice off campus. In Page’s narrow-minded world, failure to agree with her makes you illegitimate as a public speaker.

NEC’s Mission Statement includes “respect for the varied qualities of individuals.” Page should get a refund.

The largest attack on free speech began three years ago, but we’re just finding out about it now. The IRS targeted conservative groups seeking non-profit status since 2010, peppering groups about their activities and affiliations, and delaying their certification for years.

Many politically active groups have filed as tax-exempt 501 (C) 4 social welfare organizations, and are allowed to engaged in limited election activities. (The Josiah Bartlett Center, where I used to work full-time and am now a Senior Fellow is a 501 (C)) 3.)

The IRS started cracking down, demanding that groups with Tea Party, Patriot, or 9-12 in their names demonstrate that a majority of their work was non-political. They just didn’t bother asking any of the liberal groups.

Senator Shaheen fueled IRS persecution of conservative groups with a pair of letters in 2012. In February, she joined six other Senate Democrats is writing a letter to then-IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman, urging investigation of C-4s engaging in federal election activities. Shaheen’s letter did not mention conservative or liberal groups. But her House colleagues were less careful, singling out conservative Crossroads GPS in the press conference announcing a similar letter.

In March, Shaheen and company followed up on a New York Times report that the IRS had “sent dozens of detailed questionnaires to Tea Party organizations”, pushing Shulman to change the way he dealt with C-4s. The Times mentioned that the IRS planned to eventually look into existing groups including conservative American Crossroads and liberal Priorities USA, but Shaheen’s letter can fairly be read as encouraging further IRS scrutiny of Tea Party groups.

Shaheen and her defenders insist that she was merely seeking to close a loophole in the tax code. That’s simply not credible. Liberal outrage at independent political expenditures, whether from 501 (C) 4’s or the Section 527 SuperPacs that cropped up recently, always fades when liberals are doing the spending. Does anyone remember Shaheen rushing to defend Ayotte from out-of-state special interests a few weeks ago?

Shaheen’s campaign to shut down politically active non-profits isn’t about the tax code. It’s about silencing opposition. Non-profits can have political messages without engaging in electioneering, the key test under the tax code. Those annoying “Call the Governor…” and “Thank you, Senator…” ads don’t expressly endorse candidates, and despite liberal paranoia, have nothing to do with the Citizens United decision.

Shaheen’s own re-election campaign is rightfully tax exempt, because we have never trusted the government with the power to tax candidates. But Shaheen saw nothing wrong in using the IRS to determine which political groups were and were not promoting social welfare. Liberals and conservative seeking to education and motivate voters actually believe they are working to make the world a better place.

The primary purpose of the First Amendment was not to protect Nazis and smut peddlers. It was to prevent government from silencing its critics. Political speech, especially unpopular political speech, should have the highest protection under the law.

Grant Bosse is Editor of New Hampshire Watchdog, an independent news site dedicated to New Hampshire public policy.

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