California Attorney General Xavier Becerra hit a low note recently during a press conference marking his first 100 days in office. Out of the blue, Becerra lashed out at nonprofit groups for “doing politics.” He threatened to investigate “these groups that are getting tax breaks [while] influencing our political system,” and claimed their donors were illegally taking charitable tax deductions. In his tirade, Becerra misstated the law. As California’s top law enforcement official, he should know better. Then again, his remarks continue his predecessor’s war against nonprofits’ First Amendment rights. . . .
Under the tax law, only donations to certain nonprofits are tax-deductible. . . . Even the biggest proponents of more regulation of nonprofits have not alleged any widespread violations by 501(c)(3) charities involving themselves in politics. Thus, Becerra’s suggestion that donors are taking charitable deductions for donating to groups that engage in politics is false. . . . And contrary to Becerra’s claim that [nonprofit advocacy groups that fall under section 501(c)(4) of the tax code] are violating the law, the Internal Revenue Service’s regulations have permitted 501(c)(4) entities to engage in a substantial amount of political activity for the past 50-plus years. To this day, both the internal and public guidance from the IRS also expressly permit these groups to participate in election campaign activities.
Unfortunately, Becerra’s ignorant or disingenuous attack on nonprofit groups’ political speech rights follows the shameful legacy of his predecessor (and now U.S. senator) Kamala Harris. As state attorney general, Harris sought without any legal basis to force nonprofit groups in California to turn over their private donor lists to her office. If they refused, she would not permit them to exercise their constitutional right to solicit funds in the state. That audacious assertion and abuse of official power threatened donors’ First Amendment right to associational speech and privacy, as the U.S. Supreme Court recognized decades ago.
Going forward, members of the nonprofit community must stand up and resist this intimidation campaign in California and elsewhere. Public officials must be called out for misstating the law about nonprofits’ First Amendment rights. Lawsuits must be brought against government officials who misuse the law to impede citizens’ right to freely associate. And political pressure must be applied to protect the vital role that nonprofits play in our political discourse. Remaining silent in response to attacks like Becerra’s will only invite further and more serious incursions.Becerra's remarks are representative of the subtle ways that Democrats and liberals mischaracterize tax laws, Supreme Court decisions like Citizens United, and campaign finance laws and regulations to demonize "dark money" and non-profit organizations engaged in perfectly lawful speech activities. The anti-speech rhetoric is part of the Democrats' current movement to silence opposing views, and they have shown how willing they are to use campaign finance and tax laws--often unlawfully--as weapons against organizations that speak against their favored policy proposals.