The IRS Just Protected Financial Donor Privacy — And Free Speech

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Dan Backer Contributor
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The Internal Revenue Service just stopped requiring 501(c)(4) nonprofit organizations — which bring Americans together for the betterment of their communities — to identify their financial donors.

The federal government previously required such groups to disclose all contributors who donate $5,000 or more. While supposedly not made public, the IRS would keep the donors’ information on hand, which was hardly encouraging for those conservative groups who saw the “non-public” information made public, or those still reeling from the Lois Lerner scandal.

Under Lerner (who still collects a six-figure government pension), the IRS developed a reputation for leaking sensitive information and harassing political organizations — and individuals — as a way of targeting political ideas she opposed.

Why should we grant petty functionaries that power? When government bureaucrats skirt their duties, heads should roll. Depriving government of a tool whose sole purpose is harassment was a wise decision.

By protecting donor privacy, the Treasury Department’s directive to the IRS took away a weapon for state enforcement — rather for state harassment.

At a time when political donors routinely come under attack from left-wing activists, the protection of private philanthropy defends our rights to freedom of speech and freedom of assembly and shields those who exercise them from intimidation on political grounds. That’s a win for the First Amendment.

In Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) words: “It’s particularly welcome news to those of us who are intently focused on defending the First Amendment, for those of us who raised concerns during the last administration about activist regulators punishing free speech and free association.”

Of course, the left-leaning mainstream media took to their usual fearmongering. One NPR headline read: “Dark Money Groups Get a Little Darker, Thanks to IRS.”

CNN’s headline was hardly more “objective”: “NRA and some other nonprofits will no longer need to identify their donors to the IRS.” CNN’s coverage focused primarily on the National Rifle Association, Chamber of Commerce and Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity. Only in an aside did CNN’s Chris Isidore mention Treasury’s ruling will equally benefit “groups like the NAACP, labor unions and volunteer fire departments.”

Which is exactly the point. Treasury’s move protects donor privacy and the First Amendment for liberals and conservatives alike — because both sides should be allowed to speak and associate free from government red tape. Our public discourse depends on it.

Alas, Democrats were all too eager to criticize the move. In Sen. Ron Wyden’s (D-Ore.) words: “Trump’s Treasury Department made it easier for anonymous foreign donors to funnel dark money into nonprofits.”

Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), meanwhile, called for continued disclosure of donors’ personal information. His Montana counterpart, Gov. Steve Bullock (D-Mont.), is going so far as to sue the Trump administration in an attempt to reverse Treasury’s move, citing the “unchecked” rise of “dark money and foreign money.”

They fail to acknowledge the threat posed to such donors by their base—liberal activists who hope to eradicate any ideas they oppose, and the donations needed to spread them. History is chock-full of examples.

In 2010, Minnesota-based Target Corporation gave $150,000 to MN Forward, a right-leaning advocacy group. MN Forward went on to support a Republican candidate who supported corporate tax cuts and opposed same-sex marriage. Shortly thereafter, radical left-wingers launched a boycott campaign against Target for supporting an “anti-gay” candidate.

leaked strategy memo from the left-leaning Media Matters for America says it all: “Media Matters Action Network will track all ACME campaign expenditures in its database and may aggressively attack ACME, or provide the information to progressive partners to attack ACME for supporting policies” that Media Matters opposes. Media Matters’ top brass comes perilously close to threatening violence against Americans whose ideas run contrary to their own. That’s un-American.

Is that really the world we want to live in? The liberal media’s selective reporting of conservative donations only makes matters worse, scapegoating right-leaning donors as nefarious and exposing them to further intimidation.

The better approach is more donor privacy to foster more public participation by private citizens — not less. Whether you agree with the NRA or Media Matters, both sides deserve an equal opportunity to state their positions. It’s then up to us, the electorate, to analyze and respond to them.

We don’t need the government getting in the way.

Dan Backer is a veteran campaign counsel, having served more than 100 candidates, PACs and political organizations, including the Committee to Defend the President. He is founding attorney of political.law.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.