[Hpn] Free speech restrictions on non-profits (fwd)

Anitra Freeman anitra@speakeasy.org
Thu, 07 Dec 2000 19:10:18 -0800 (PST)


From the Independent Media Center website http://www.indymedia.org/
----------------

The IRS is threatening to hold non-profit organizations liable for the
comments made by visitors to their websites and by the actions of
organizations to which the websites have links. [This seems to be aimed
directly at Indymedia!!] "Guilty" organizations would be stripped of
their tax-exempt status. The IRS is now seeking public comments on their
intentions (see address below). Commenters may also send a copy of their
comments to Senators and Representatives in Congress where concern has
been expressed (see below). The deadline for public comments is February
13, 2001. Freedom of speech and the freedom of non- profit organizations
to dispense valuable information depends on citizen response.  The
Internal Revenue Service (IRS) acting on its own initiative, without
legislative authorization, is considering "the necessity of issuing
guidance that would clarify the application of the Internal Revenue Code
to use of the Internet by [tax] exempt organizations. In short, the IRS
wants to monitor and regulate free speech on the Internet.

Organizations may be held liable for the activities of other
organizations over whom they have neither control or internal knowledge
of operations. Organizations may also be held liable for the speech of
individual comments made online at the website.

Tax-exempt (non-profit) organizations are required by law to restrict
lobbying activities to a minimum, or lose their tax-exempt status. Those
that take the IRS (h) election are allowed to allocate a small
percentage of their revenues to lobbying activities.

Clarifying an intention to regulate speech, the IRS announcement
includes many questions under consideration regarding regulation of the
use of the Internet by non-profit, tax exempt organizations.  These are
a few:

* To what extent are statements made by subscribers to a forum, such as
a listserv or newsgroup, attributable to an exempt organization that
maintains the forum?

* Does providing a hyperlink on a charitable organization's website to
another organization that engages in political campaign intervention
result in per se prohibited political intervention?

* Does providing a hyperlink to the website of another organization that
engages in lobbying activity constitute lobbying by a charitable
organization?

* Unlike other publications of an exempt organization, a website may be
modified on a daily basis. To what extent and by what means should an
exempt organization maintain the information from prior versions of the
organization's website?

The effect of IRS regulation and monitoring of Internet sites--no doubt
with the threat of hefty fines for infringements--will seriously limit
public discourse and freedom of speech. Even if the website is
eventually found to be innocent of an IRS charge, damage to the
organization will be extensive: in lawyer fees, temporary or long- term
loss of the website, and energy directed away from operations to focus
on securing exoneration.

Members of Congress are also concerned. Rep. Dick Armey chastised the
IRS' request for comments saying, "The IRS has no business getting
involved in whether a think tank has links on its website, or how often
a charity's site is updated. The idea of turning the tax man into a net
cop would have a chilling effect on free speech on the Internet" (Tech
Law Journal, 10/26/00)

---Citizens' Council on Health Care 
November 28, 2000 

---------------------------------- 
TO COMMENT: 

Send public comments to: 

Internal Revenue Service 
1111 Constitution Ave., NW 
Washington, DC 20224 
Attn: Judith E. Kindell 

Regarding Document: IRS Announcement 2000-84, Dated October 16. 
DEADLINE: February 13, 2001. 

View IRS document at: 
http://www.techlawjournal.com/agencies/irs/internet/20001016.asp

[end forward]