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Targeting the Constitution

by Nicholas Quinn Rosenkranz     •      Washington Post

IRS new logoIt is now well known that the IRS targeted tea party organizations. What is less well known, but perhaps even more scandalous, is that the IRS also targeted those who would educate their fellow citizens about the United States Constitution.

According to the inspector general’s report (pp. 30 & 38), this particular IRS targeting commenced on Jan. 25, 2012 — the beginning of the election year for President Obama’s second campaign. On that date: “the BOLO [‘be on the lookout’] criteria were again updated.” The revised criteria included “political action type organizations involved in … educating on the Constitution and Bill of Rights.”

Grass-roots organizations around the country, such as the Linchpins of Liberty (Tennessee), the Spirit of Freedom Institute (Wyoming), and the Constitutional Organization of Liberty (Pennsylvania), allege that they were singled out for special scrutiny at least in part for their work in constitutional education. There may have been many more.

The tea party is viewed with general suspicion in some quarters, and it is not difficult, alas, to imagine the mindset of the officials who decided to target tea party organizations for special scrutiny. But federal officers swear an oath to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” It is chilling to think that these same officials who are suspicious of the tea party are equally suspicious of the Constitution itself.

What is most corrosive about this IRS tripwire is that it is triggered by a particular point of view; it is not, as First Amendment scholars say, viewpoint-neutral. It does not include obfuscating or denigrating the Constitution; only those “involved in … educating on the Constitution” are captured by this criterion. This viewpoint targeting potentially skews every national debate about politics or government. And the skew is not strictly liberal; indeed, it should trouble liberals as much as conservatives. The ultimate checks on executive power are to be found in the United States Constitution. Insidiously, then, suppressing those “involved in … educating on the Constitution” actually skews national debate in favor of unchecked executive power.

For example, this IRS tripwire would not be triggered by arguing that the NSA should collect the phone records of every American citizen. But it would be triggered by teaching that the Fourth Amendment forbids “unreasonable searches and seizures.” This tripwire would not be triggered by arguing that the president should unilaterally suspend politically inconvenient provisions of federal law, like ObamaCare. But it would be triggered by teaching that, under Article II, section 3, the president “shall take care that the laws be faithfully executed.” This tripwire would not be triggered by arguing that the president should appoint NLRB members unilaterally. But it would be triggered by teaching that, under Article II, section 2, such appointments require “the Advice and Consent of the Senate.” This tripwire would not be triggered by arguing that the president should target and kill U.S. citizens abroad. But it would be triggered by teaching that, per the Fifth Amendment, no person shall “be deprived of life … without due process of law.” This tripwire would not be triggered by arguing that the president should declare war unilaterally. But it would be triggered by teaching that, under Article I, section 8, “Congress shall have Power … To declare War.” In short, the IRS was “on the lookout,” not for those who preach unlimited executive power, but for those who would teach about constitutional constraints.

Even more to the point, perhaps, this IRS tripwire would not be triggered by arguing that the IRS should discriminate against the tea party. But it would be triggered by teaching that such discrimination constitutes unfaithful execution of the tax laws. And thus, alas, there is a perverse logic to targeting constitutional educators alongside tea party organizations. Political discrimination in the administration of the tax laws is not merely “outrageous,” as Obama has said; it is an assault on our constitutional structure itself. For an official who has chosen to go down this road and target the tea party, there is an Orwellian logic to targeting constitutional educators as well. After all, they are the ones who might shed light on this very point.

This is a new low for American government — targeting those who would teach others about its founding document. Forty years ago, President Richard Nixon went to great lengths to try to conceal the facts of his constitutional violations, but it never occurred to him to conceal the meaning of the Constitution itself, by targeting its teachers. Politicians have always been tempted to try to censor their political adversaries; but none has been so bold as to try to suppress constitutional education directly. Presidents have always sought to push against the constitutional limits of their power; but never have they targeted those who merely teach about such limits. In short, never before has the federal government singled out for special scrutiny those who would teach their fellow citizens about our magnificent Constitution. This is the new innovation of Obama’s IRS.

“We the People” do not yet know who first decided to target “political action type organizations involved in … educating on the Constitution and Bill of Rights.” But there is at least one person who does know. Ironically, though, Lois Lerner, former director of the Exempt Organizations Division of the IRS, is making full use of her own constitutional education: “I have been advised by my counsel to assert my constitutional right not to testify …. One of the basic functions of the Fifth Amendment is to protect innocent individuals, and that is the protection I’m invoking today.”

Five years ago, Obama, our constitutional law professor-in-chief, presented his first, ringing Constitution Day proclamation: “To succeed, the democracy established in our Constitution requires the active participation of its citizenry. Each of us has a responsibility to learn about our Constitution and teach younger generations about its contents and history.” Quite so. Perhaps this year, Obama could explain why his IRS would target those who answered this call.

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Nicholas Quinn Rosenkranz is a Professor of Law at Georgetown, a Senior Fellow in Constitutional Studies at the Cato Institute, and an occasional Broadway producer.