Op-Ed

McConnell: Stopping the speech police is goal of new IRS rule

FILE - In this May 21, 2013, file photo, tea party activists demonstrate on Fountain Square before marching to the John Weld Peck Federal Building in Cincinnati to protest the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status. Tea party activists are heartened by a federal appeals court ruling that strengthens their legal push against the Internal Revenue Service for alleged targeting in past election cycles. A Cincinnati-based panel chastised government foot-dragging while ordering the agency to give attorneys for tea party groups details on tax-exempt applicants. (AP Photo/Al Behrman, File)
FILE - In this May 21, 2013, file photo, tea party activists demonstrate on Fountain Square before marching to the John Weld Peck Federal Building in Cincinnati to protest the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status. Tea party activists are heartened by a federal appeals court ruling that strengthens their legal push against the Internal Revenue Service for alleged targeting in past election cycles. A Cincinnati-based panel chastised government foot-dragging while ordering the agency to give attorneys for tea party groups details on tax-exempt applicants. (AP Photo/Al Behrman, File) AP

The Herald-Leader’s recent attack against me proved, once again, that its editorial board favors government regulation of speech and association over our basic individual freedoms.

I, on the other hand, have spent my career defending the First Amendment, and will do so again now.

Last month marked the 60th anniversary of NAACP v. Alabama, a momentous Supreme Court decision for our freedoms of speech and association. Writing for the unanimous court, Justice John Marshall Harlan agreed with the NAACP when he wrote that “Inviolability of privacy in group association may in many circumstances be indispensable to preservation of freedom of association, particularly where a group espouses dissident beliefs.”

Attacks on the First Amendment have continued, and defenders of free speech must remain on constant guard. Much to our delight, the Internal Revenue Service recently announced that it will no longer require personal information for non-deductible donations to certain nonprofit groups.

The organizations affected are under two parts of our tax code, sections 501(c)(4) and 501(c)(6). They are education and advocacy groups, including veterans’ organizations, business leagues and local chambers of commerce. Giving to or joining one of these groups is an exercise of long-recognized freedom of speech and association.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said “Americans shouldn’t be required to send the IRS information that it doesn’t need to effectively enforce our tax laws, and the IRS simply does not need tax returns with donor names and addresses to do its job in this area.”

I fully agree, because we’ve seen what happens when this information is used inappropriately.

In 2012, I heard from Kentuckians who had drawn the attention of the speech police. Under the Obama administration’s IRS, certain tax-exempt organizations were targeted based on their ideology. The groups and their donors faced increased scrutiny and investigation. I called for a government-wide review of these abuses to hold the bad actors accountable.

Worse still, bureaucrats — required by law to protect donor information —at times allowed nonpublic records to become public. Activists used those leaks to harass those who disagreed with them. The government has proven that it is not a good steward of information, especially the material it doesn’t need in the first place.

As more activist regulators under President Barack Obama sought nonpublic IRS documents, individuals from across the political spectrum rethought donating, associating or even speaking. Their First Amendment rights were undeniably chilled.

In this country, good government means protecting citizens’ rights to participate in the marketplace of ideas — not trying to shut down that marketplace. We persuade; we don’t intimidate.

Mnuchin’s announcement fixes a bad policy. Reforming these rules will ensure Kentuckians can keep their private views and the causes they support just that — private.

We must also understand what this announcement has not changed. The IRS continues to uphold the same level of transparency to the public. Super PACs, political-action committees and candidates will still be required to list their donors to the Federal Election Commission.

And — in response to the Herald-Leader’s accusations about foreign governments — prohibitions still apply on money from other countries entering the political process. The laws against that are clear, and I wholeheartedly support them.

This announcement protects free speech and association. One would think that a news organization like the Herald-Leader, which certainly enjoys its rights under the First Amendment, would appreciate that fact.

The people of Kentucky who suffered under the microscope of Obama’s activist regulators certainly do.

Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, is Senate majority leader.

At issue: July 18 Herald-Leader editorial, “More dark money in U.S. politics pleases Mitch McConnell”

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