How did America get to the point where the IRS is targeting conservative groups?

Three premier conservative lawyers cited campaign finance laws and a cultural acceptance of beating up on conservatives as factors in the Internal Revenue Service’s recent attacks on free speech and targeting of conservative groups.

“It started specifically because I think it’s part of the way in our culture that it’s OK to beat up on conservatives,” said Cleta Mitchell of Foley & Lardner at a recent Heritage Foundation event. She continued, “This is what happens when you depart from the rule of law…this is lawlessness.” Mitchell specializes in advising nonprofits and issue organizations on compliance and financial disclosure issues. She represents numerous groups that experienced prolonged waiting periods to receive tax-exempt status from the IRS.

“How did the IRS get into this business in the first place? What I want to suggest, of course, is that it has been a very conscious effort over a long period of time by folks in the campaign finance reform regime,” said Bradley Smith of the Center for Competitive Politics.

Smith spoke on the effort by the left to silence political speech following the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision with the introduction of the DISCLOSE Act. “Chuck Schumer when he introduced this, the lead sponsor of this bill, said, ‘The purpose of this bill is to deter the other side,’” said Smith.

Opponents are targeting businesses or business leaders who support conservative causes, for example.

“Media Matters, David Brock’s group, has intentionally made clear in fundraising pitches their intention to expose donors, so that other left-wing groups and they can organize boycotts of these conservative donors,” said Smith.

In addition, President Barack Obama used his 2010 State of the Union Address to criticize the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.

“An atmosphere is created when the President of the United States and high-ranking members of the majority party in the Senate are making these kinds of allegations that these groups are operating in violation of the law,” said Smith.

The National Organization for Marriage (NOM) experienced political intimidation from the IRS when its tax return and private donors list were leaked to the Human Rights Campaign. Dr. John Eastman, chairman of NOM, announced that it has filed suit against the IRS seeking compensation for the losses it incurred after this data leak.

The organization requested an investigation from Department of Justice more than 18 months ago, yet no one at the IRS has been identified as responsible. Unauthorized disclosure of tax documents has been classified as a felony since the Nixon Administration.

“We’re going to continue to unravel that chain until we figure out how high up this thing went and demand accountability in office. Because if we don’t do that and they get away with this, then the next election cycle it will be 10 times worse,” said Eastman.

Highlighting the fact that all groups should be free of discrimination regardless of political affiliation, Heritage Senior Legal Fellow Hans A. von Spakovsky added, “We all know that the First Amendment was intended to protect political speech and encourage the participation of American citizens in the political life of this nation.”

“Campaign finance laws implemented over the last 30 years have in many ways restricted the First Amendment rights of individuals and associations, and so have the tax laws that have been interpreted by the Internal Revenue Service,” said von Spakovsky.

John Bates is currently a member of the Young Leaders Program at The Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please click here