Commentary: IRS Intimidation Scandal Is a Civil Rights Violation

The federal government has betrayed the American people on a scale not seen since the civil rights era. In both cases, officials exercising their government-backed powers attempted to intimidate and publicly shame political opponents.

We now know the IRS targeted select groups for increased review on their tax-exempt applications, starting in 2010. Aside from slowing down their applications — some groups waited for up to 18 months just to get a response — the IRS demanded these groups share lists of donors.

State and local community organizers were required to provide donor lists, printouts of Web pages, copies of newsletters, bulletins, fliers and stories or radio transcripts that mentioned certain political candidates. This falls way outside proper IRS authority and is deeply troubling, but we’ve seen it before.

This type of government intimidation hearkens back to the civil rights era and the 1958 Supreme Court case NAACP v. Alabama. In 1956, the state of Alabama demanded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) turn over its membership list.

The state claimed it needed the list to ensure the organization — which was headquartered in New York — wasn’t operating in the state, a violation of Alabama’s laws requiring foreign businesses to register with the state. The NAACP refused, and the case went to the Supreme Court. In 1958, the court ruled in favor of the NAACP, determining that the First Amendment right to free speech includes the right to private group association.

The IRS’s recent violation of this Supreme Court hearing is outrageous. Whether it’s an organization working to promote race equality or to shrink the size of government, all Americans have a right to join and support groups without fear of reprisal.

Many have attempted to frame the IRS scandal as a political issue: the liberals in power attacking conservatives for their beliefs. But this goes a lot deeper than partisan politics, just as the NAACP case went a lot deeper than the color of people’s skin.

This is, once again, the case of a few powerful insiders violating the constitutional rights of individual Americans. The IRS abused its authority and infringed on the First Amendment rights of hundreds of organizations. While it may have been a case of Obama administration officials misusing their authority against conservatives in this instance, it could happen to any group of Americans the next time around.

This abuse of power cannot go unpunished. The Constitution guarantees freedom of association for all, regardless of personal characteristics such as skin color or political affiliation.

The media backlash against the IRS’s actions proves this issue has deeply touched people from all ideological perspectives. News anchors, reporters and pundits on the left and right have gone after the agency’s abuse of power, calling for justice. Even CNN’s Piers Morgan, an outspoken liberal, said the actions of the IRS were “bordering on tyrannical behavior.”

Lois Lerner, the former head of the Federal Election Commission unit that sued the Christian Coalition and the director of the IRS tax-exempt unit responsible for these abuses, was called to testify at a hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Instead of helping to shed light on the situation by explaining to the American people what had happened, Lerner refused to speak. How hypocritical that she invoked her constitutional right to remain silent, while the violation of the First Amendment continually occurred under her watch.

Regardless of political affiliation, belief or skin color, we are all Americans. Our rights and liberties are enshrined in our Constitution, not the power brokers of the Beltway. When the government denies certain groups of people their right to join together peaceably, the time has come for action. We’ve seen this before and once again we’re called to fight for our most basic civil rights, not just as people of color, but as Americans.