Sometimes the most insidious attack on our individual liberty arises not from the government’s wholesale trampling on those rights, but instead from a widespread chilling effect, in which individuals “self-police” or regulate their behavior out of fear of the government’s retaliation.
The years-long IRS scandal surrounding its abuse of power when it engaged in a systematic targeting of conservatives is a powerful example of the government’s ability to initiate a chilling effect on free speech.
It has been nearly four years since the IRS admitted in May of 2013 to singling out and targeting conservative groups, especially tea party groups, for additional scrutiny, onerous paperwork, and even audits. The IRS’s abusive targeting, which lasted for years, was entirely motivated by political animus and caused untold – incalculable, even – devastation to conservatives and to conservative groups.
As the co-founder and leader of the nation’s largest tea party organization, I can attest to the harm caused by the IRS’s targeting scandal. Throughout the summer of 2013, my staff and I interviewed more than 1,000 individuals and tea party groups to understand their personal situations and how the targeting had affected them. The stories we heard were both extraordinary and emotional.
We heard about small-business owners who had founded tea party groups, only to find themselves embroiled in complicated and expensive audits as soon as they filled out the paperwork to obtain legal IRS status.
We learned about the many groups that received monstrously invasive questionnaires and forms to complete, with requests for additional information, including the Employer Identification Numbers (EINs) for any of the small businesses whose members attended the tea party group, the groups’ reading lists, and even, incredibly, the contents of the groups’ and individuals’ prayers.
It’s probably safe to say our founding fathers, who championed religious freedom and the general notion that the federal government should mind its own business when it comes to private citizens’ prayers, would not have taken kindly to these IRS forms and mandatory questionnaires.
After meeting with, and speaking with, hundreds of local tea party organization members in 2013, I was convinced of three key points: 1) the IRS’s targeting scandal had had a profound impact on organizations’ abilities to attract new members, fundraise, and engage on important policy battles; 2) the chilling effect of the federal government’s actions was real, devastating, and impossible to calculate; and 3) the American public needed to know the full extent of the targeting scandal so we could ensure it would never happen again.
When news of the targeting became public, the media was completely disinterested. And, now, four years later, it seems, not much has changed with the media’s interest levels.
Just this past week, the IRS revealed that it had found nearly 7,000 documents potentially related to the targeting of tea party groups. Yes, the agency that has stone-walled Congress for four years, lost computers and hard drives and tens of thousands of emails, just discovered 6,924 documents in response to an ongoing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request from Judicial Watch.
Mainstream media outlets have barely reported on this latest revelation at all. And why should they? It’s only the latest chapter in a tome the media has made clear it has no intention of sharing with the American public.
The IRS’s targeting inspired fear and silenced entire groups across the country, as they disbanded and discontinued their work. The targeting was unfair, unconstitutional, and, yes, un-American.
The media, for its part, has sat on the sidelines, completely disinterested in reporting on this scandal. Freedom of the press, which is such an ingrained part of the fabric of our society, is a two-way street. A free and robust press must, on the one hand, be free of government control and coercive pressures to propagandize, but, on the other hand, must be judicious enough to recognize, and report on, the stories and scandals like the IRS targeting that threaten our liberty.
One can only imagine how little the American public would have ever known about the Watergate scandal if Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward had taken the modern media’s approach of simply taking at face value the government’s assurance that there’s nothing to see here.
Two hallmarks of a free society are that individuals do not have to live in fear that their political views or activities will cause them to be subjected to abuse by the federal taxing agency, and that the press holds government accountable when it becomes abusive to its citizens. It seems, in both areas, we have a lot more work to do.
Jenny Beth Martin is the president and co-founder of Tea Party Patriots.
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