James Madison had it exactly right.
Referring to infringements on our freedoms, the Father of the Bill of Rights once wrote that such encroachments were more often “gradual and silent” than “violent and sudden.”
That’s exactly what we’re seeing with President Obama’s proposed regulation on so-called 501(c)(4) groups: a stealth attempt to stifle the ability of ordinary Americans to participate in the political process.
The administration’s proposal, quietly floated over Thanksgiving, is just the latest in a long line of attempts to skirt the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in Citizens United, which basically said that businesses and independent groups have the same right to free speech under the First Amendment as anybody else.
Liberals hated Citizens United because it helped level the political playing field for conservatives. In their view, corporations that own liberal media outlets like The New York Times and MSNBC should have an absolute right to free speech, but independent groups and other grassroots organizations that seek to promote Madisonian ideals like limited government and greater liberty need to be kept in check.
They tried this a few years ago with the DISCLOSE Act, a bill that would have forced grassroots groups to disclose their donor lists. The goal was as obvious as it was anti-democratic: expose the names of those who support unfashionable causes or candidates in the hope of scaring them right off the political playing field.
And we all know what happened after Republicans blocked the DISCLOSE Act. The President and his top campaign aides made the names of conservative donors famous on their own, signaling to top officials at the IRS that they shouldn’t think twice about giving extra scrutiny to anybody on the conservative team.
In the end, an independent Inspector General found that IRS officials abused their authority by singling out scores of conservative grassroots groups for audits and delayed approval for tax-exempt status.
But this latest effort is the most audacious yet. Rather than reforming the IRS and doing whatever it took to assure Americans that the agency would no longer target individuals or groups that oppose the President, the administration has decided to double down by attempting to block these groups from forming in the first place.
Under the new regulation, groups that already exist could have to shut down altogether.
For some, it may be hard to imagine that the Obama administration would even think of touching an issue this radioactive after last year’s scandal stunned the nation. They underestimate the extent to which this administration and its allies are willing to go to shut down — and shut up — their ideological opponents.
They also underestimate the extent to which these folks are willing to go to hold onto power, and they forget how speech is usually stifled. As Madison knew, most encroachments on free speech and other constitutionally-protected freedoms are backdoor efforts like this one.
For us, the goal now should be to get as many Americans as we can engaged in this fight and beat back this latest assault on political speech. I’m convinced that once people realize what’s happening, the administration will feel the heat and back off. It may not be easy, but preserving our constitutional rights never has been.
And it’s a fight we have to win.
I know from personal experience that the Constitution and tenacity are the two greatest weapons we have in battles like this one. It's a lesson I learned from a long fight I've waged against campaign finance laws that struck a serious blow to the right of free speech. The low point for me was when I watched a Republican President sign into law a bill that I’d been fighting for years.
I never give up, though. Instead, I sued the government. And we’ve made real progress over the years, including the Citizens United decision. But the fight continues. As this latest proposal from the Obama administration makes clear, assaults on our constitutionally-protected liberties never stop.
That’s why I’ve launched another campaign this week to make more Americans aware of this latest liberal assault. It’s also why I’ve called on the new IRS commissioner to follow the example of Donald Alexander, the IRS commissioner who famously opposed President Nixon’s attempts to use the IRS to go after his own political opponents.
The Obama administration’s arrogance here is breathtaking. But if the American people get engaged and fight back, we will win this fight. I'm sure of it.