The blog of Academe Magazine. Opinions published here do not necessarily represent the policies of the AAUP.
The IRS scrutiny and delays aimed at Tea Party nonprofit groups has received enormous media and political attention. There’s nothing illegal, or scandalous, about these disturbing investigations of political groups. It’s been IRS policy and practice to do so for a long time, and more often targeted against liberal groups (and with much less justification).
Back in 2008, I wrote about the threat to freedom of speech posed by an IRS probe (under the Bush Administration) aimed at Barack Obama’s church for the thought crime of inviting Barack Obama to speak at his own church.
Now, no one imagined that the United Church of Christ was primarily involved in electoral politics (which is a real goal for many Tea Party groups). So where was the outcry in 2008 from all these conservatives who now imagine that a crime has occurred at the IRS?
If there had been a progressive activist movement to form nonprofit groups to influence elections, I am confident that the IRS would have similarly scrutinized those groups. If the Occupy movement had tried to be effective and influential by intervening in the political process as the Tea Party movement did, I believe that the IRS would have gone after them. But there’s no evidence of a similar onslaught of liberal groups directly involved in politics who were applying at this time for nonprofit status. So there’s no evidence that the IRS made any unequal treatment of conservatives based on their politics.
A report from the inspector general found no evidence of any political motive in the IRS approach.
Nevertheless, what the IRS did to Tea Party groups was wrong, just as what the IRS has done for years to liberal groups was wrong. What this absurdly overwrought “scandal” should result is in a much stronger commitment to freedom of political speech, including by nonprofit organizations.
One disturbing consequence of the IRS attack on political speech for years has been numerous cases of censorship of political speech by colleges out of fear that the IRS might revoke nonprofit status. In one particularly disturbing example in 2008, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago banned the screening of a documentary about Barack Obama because of this paranoid fear, even though the IRS itself had clearly stated otherwise.
The sudden attention that the Tea Party has brought to long-time IRS policies infringing upon political speech should not bring a witchhunt against Barack Obama or IRS employees who were simply doing what the IRS has always done. Instead, it should bring changes to IRS policies in order to better protect freedom of political speech.
Crossposted at DailyKos.