Proposed IRS Rule a Threat to the First Amendment

WASHINGTON – Whenever something or someone is successful, there is some busybody in this city scheming to rein in it/him/her. In some cases, there is the theory (as in the Clinton administration’s crusade against Internet entrepreneur Bill Gates) that if someone besides the government is making lots of money, there must be something sinister about it.

WASHINGTON – Whenever something or someone is successful, there is some busybody in this city scheming to rein in it/him/her. In some cases, there is the theory (as in the Clinton administration’s crusade against Internet entrepreneur Bill Gates) that if someone besides the government is making lots of money, there must be something sinister about it.

Other instances involve self-styled advocates of “democracy” who begin to suspect that perhaps there is a little too much “democracy” going on. Government must intervene.

The latter appears to be the case in a proposed IRS rule. Listed as IRS Announcement 2000-84, we are informed that “the Internal Revenue Service is considering the necessity of issuing guidelines that would clarify the application of the Internal Revenue Code to use of the Internet by [tax] exempt organizations.”

The real thrust of Announcement 2000-84 comes later in the form of a question: “Does providing a hyperlink on a charitable organization that engages in political campaign intervention result in per se prohibited intervention?”

Although we are told, “The service is soliciting public comment” on this, NewsMax.com’s phoned inquiries for information on the announcement were not acknowledged. We finally got our copy from someone whose lawyer knew the ropes well enough to dig it out.

And you have less than two weeks to submit your comments in writing. If you have never heard of the proposed rule by then (as few Americans have), too bad. Your time is up. Ever wonder how Washington places these curbs on your activities without your even knowing it? This is an example of how it happens.

The proposal has attracted the alarmed concern of nonprofit organizations on the right and the left. But surveys have shown that although there are many liberal Web sites out there, conservatives have made the most use of the Internet, “the people’s medium.” That could be because conservatives have concluded the Internet is the one medium that gives them a reasonable outlet without fear of left-wing censorship. That is why conservative nonprofits in particular see the rule as a threat.

Under this proposal, a nonprofit group that links itself to a political site as a reference could automatically be seen by the IRS as “engaging in political activity.”

“That’s ridiculous,” according to an official of a conservative nonprofit tax-exempt group. “We link to political Web sites all the time – not to get around the tax-exempt law, but to give people a reference to what we’re talking about.”

Threat to Free Speech

“We’ve often provided a reference to the Democratic Party platform, even though we rarely agree with what they say. Does that put us in the position of political advocacy? This is crazy! It is a curb on the interchange of ideas and full discussion of issues.”

Even if the nonprofit organization disagrees with the site to which it links, it could be held liable for third-party chat room speech at that link, while lacking any control over that speech.

It would seem to be a case of “Speak out at the risk of your own cause.” A link site could conceivably injure the tax status of the nonprofit, either intentionally or through deliberate mischief.

The IRS document asks “what facts or circumstances are relevant in determining whether lobbying communications made on the internet are a substantial part of the organization’s activities? For example, are location of the communication on the website (main page or subsidiary page) or number of hits relevant?”

One observer has interpreted this to mean that one person or group could intentionally injure a nonprofit by repeatedly viewing a page to make it appear that a page represents significant activity of the organization, and thus, for lobbying purposes, injure the nonprofit’s tax status.

This controversy lends credence to those who fear that Washington is a city where the enemies of free speech never rest.

The IRS says public comments should be submitted in writing on or before Feb. 13 to: Internal Revenue Service, 1111 Constitution Ave., Washington, D.C. 20224. Attn: Judith Kindel: Exempt Organizations.

For further information, Ms. Kindel can be reached at 202-622-6494.

The Internet, more than most media, is relatively unregulated, untaxed and unfettered in the realm of free expression. There are those in this city who see that as a negative and are determined to do something about it.

Author: Wes Vernon

News Service: newsmax.com

URL: http://www.newsmax.com/archives/articles/2001/1/31/202848.shtml