The assault on the First Amendment and the IRS scandal

This morning Michael Barone asks: “Why does the left want to suppress free speech?” On Friday Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell gave an outstanding speech at AEI on the left’s assault on the First Amendment. I would go so far as to say that this is an important speech. Senator McConnell is an expert on the First Amendment free speech rights; he knows whereof he speaks. Moreover, as an actor in the political battles related to it, he is in a prime position to make this point:

Looking back, the IRS scandal helps explain a lot of the things this administration has done. You all remember the President wagging his finger at the Supreme Court during his 2010 State of the Union address. Well, I assure you this little piece of presidential theater wasn’t done for the ratings. There was a good reason the President and his allies devoted so much time and energy to denouncing the Citizens United case. But it’s not the reason they gave. I realize this may be shocking to some of the interns in the crowd. But the fact is, the Court’s decision was actually fairly unremarkable.

All it really said was that, under the First Amendment, every corporation in America should be free to participate in the political process, not just the ones that own newspapers and TV stations. In other words, there shouldn’t be a carve-out when it comes to political speech for folks who own media companies. It was a good and fair decision aimed at leveling the playing field.

The real reason the Left was so concerned about Citizens United was that they thought it meant more conservatives would start to form what are known as social welfare organizations — something they’d been doing, with groups like Planned Parenthood and the Sierra Club, for years. And what’s notable about social welfare groups is they don’t have to disclose their donors.

That was the main concern of the President and his allies. They weren’t interested in the integrity of the process. If they were, they’d have been just as upset at Left-wing groups for maintaining the privacy of their donors. What they really wanted was a hook that enabled them to stir up outrage about conservative groups, so they could get their hands on the names of the folks who supported them — and then go after them. Citizens United provided that hook.

As a longtime political observer and First Amendment hawk, I knew exactly what the Democrats were up to with their complaints about this decision. I’ve seen what the loudest proponents of disclosure have intended in the past, and it’s not good government. That’s why the FEC has protected the donor lists of the Socialist Worker’s Party since 1979. That’s also why the Supreme Court told the State of Alabama it couldn’t force the NAACP to disclose the names and addresses of its members back in the 1950s.

The President could claim, as he did six months after wagging his finger at the Supreme Court, that “the only people who don’t want to disclose the truth are people with something to hide.” But the fact is, there’s a very good and legitimate reason that courts have protected folks from forced disclosure — because they know that failing to do so would subject them to harassment.

So the political response to Citizens United, the so-called DISCLOSE Act, wasn’t really about cleaning up politics: It was about finding a blunt political weapon to use against one group and one group only: conservatives. Those who doubt this haven’t been paying attention to the tactics of the Left. They must not have noticed the stories about top administration officials holding weekly phone calls with groups like Media Matters. They clearly don’t know their history. And they must not have noticed the enemies list of conservative donors on the Obama campaign’s Web site. Or the strategic name-dropping of conservative targets by the President’s campaign team.

These folks were talking about the Koch Brothers so much last year you’d think they were running for President. About six months after the President berated the Supreme Court, he even went so far as to call out Americans for Prosperity by name. It was like sending a memo to the IRS that said “audit these guys”.

All these things together point to a coordinated effort to stifle speech.

Senator McConnell moves from this point to an examination of “one of the most enduring lessons” of the IRS scandal, i.e., the timeline. He notes:

Based on the IG report, we now know that a team of IRS specialists was tasked with isolating conservatives for scrutiny as early as March 2010. What matters isn’t whether they were doing it in Washington or Cincinnati — or Duluth, for that matter. What really matters is that it coincided with a very public campaign by the President, and a small army of Left-wing allies in and out of government, to vilify anyone who had recently formed a group around conservative causes.

What happened before this targeting began is just as important as what happened after.

What matters here was the atmosphere; what matters is the culture of intimidation this President and his allies created around any person or group that spoke up for conservatism — or against the direction the President and his administration wanted to take us.

The so-called “special interests,” he said, would “flood” the political process, with money that might be coming from “foreign entities.” “The problem”, he said, “is nobody knows” who’s behind these groups. They were “shadowy.” They might even be “foreign controlled”. These were the kinds of unsubstantiated claims the President and his allies trafficked in from early 2010 right up through the election, and they were just as reckless and preposterous as Harry Reid saying Mitt Romney hadn’t paid his taxes in 10 years. They may have been wrapped in the appealing rhetoric of disclosure, but make no mistake: the goal was to win at any cost, and that meant shutting up their opponents in any way they could. So, no, I don’t believe that the President ever actually picked up a phone and told someone over at the IRS to slow-walk those applications or audit anybody. But the truth is, he didn’t have to. The message was clear enough.

But if the message was clear, the medium was also perfectly suited to the cause.

The federal bureaucracy, and in particular the growth of public sector unions, has created an inherent and undeniable tension between those who believe in limited self-government and those who stand to benefit from its growth. Let’s face it, when elected leaders and union bosses tell the folks who work at these agencies that they should view half the people they’re supposed to be serving as a threat to democracy, it shouldn’t surprise any of us that they would. Why would we even expect a public employee — whose union more or less exists to grow the government — to treat someone who opposes that goal to a fair hearing? When the head of the union that represents unionized IRS workers publicly vilifies the Tea Party, is it any wonder that members of her union would get caught targeting them?

This is something liberals used to worry about….

Please read the whole thing.

Responses