Archive for the 'Politics' Category

IRS vs. Tea Party “scandal”: Minnesota nonprofits have not been immune from IRS action

May 16, 2013

Many eyes are on the White House over news the IRS has been targeting Tea Party-like tax-exempt corporations.  The law in question is 26 U.S.C. 501 (c)(4), which provides tax-exempt status to organizations that are “operated exclusively for the promotion of social welfare.”  Those are Congress’ words, not President Obama’s.

 Under the law, (c)(4) groups get tax-exempt status.  They differ from their (c)(3) cousins because (c)(4)s get to participate in politics—the theory being that voters deserve to hear views of groups dedicated to “social welfare.”  In Minnesota, (c)(4)s have ranged from taxpayer-rights groups to Lions Clubs.

 Because Congress created the law in the first place, it has the ultimate responsibility to make sure it’s being enforced.  Secondarily the executive branch does too, by and through the IRS.  To that end, the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits reports that in 2011 the IRS revoked the tax-exempt status of more than 5,100 Minnesota nonprofits, 666 of them (c)(4)s.

Many were revoked because they were no longer in existence.  Still, by its acts, the IRS was doing its job.  That also is true with respect to its investigation Tea Party groups.  But what both the IRS and Congress need to do is ensure (c)(4)s of all political stripes get the same treatment.

Hennepin County says the Occupy signs must go. But where can they go?

November 4, 2011

Beginning this morning, Hennepin County says it will enforce new rules for Occupy Minnesota adherents, apparently as part of the county’s effort to “winterize” the county-owned plaza where adherents have camped, protested, and affixed signs.

An Occupy sign, planted in a publicly-owned planter Thursday evening.

Adherents are claiming a First Amendment right to engage in their efforts.  Earlier this week, I blogged about whether the First Amendment protects a right to sleep in a public place when, as here, protesters hope to draw attention to the fact that some people (i.e. Minnesotans subject to foreclosure) risk having nowhere warm and dry to sleep.

Now the county plans to ban overnight sleeping when the temperature dips below 25.  It’s a new wrinkle because it’s not clear how cold temperatures are relevant to the “time, place, and “manner” restrictions the county likely may impose consistent with the First Amendment.

But the county also plans to ban signs from being affixed to county-owned benches, fountain, and planters.  Entirely, it appears.  Government, of course, owns those things.  But what is “government,” anyway?  That’s among the Occupy adherents’ points, I think.  If the public owns the benches, fountain, and planters, all made with material that can and will withstand a little masking tape, who’s to say what gets to be affixed there?  And by leaving no avenue for posting signs on government property, there does seem to be a First Amendment concern.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota has come to the Occupy movement’s aid.  While not representing the adherents, the ACLU rightly points out that the broadest First Amendment protections are aimed at “political expression.”  While the legal support in the ACLU’s letter is eyebrow-raising because it consists of cases involving obscenity, the rights of a white separatist’s movement, and a newspaper-box licensing scheme, the ACLU’s core message is spot-on.

Political speech is different.

Is sleeping outside Hennepin County Government Center “speech”?

October 30, 2011

By sleeping outside the Hennepin County Government Center, Occupy Minnesota adherents are sending a message through what they are doing as much as what they are saying.  And it’s possible, but likely not probable, that the First Amendment protects their acts.

It is not entirely clear whether sleeping in a public place is, essentially, speech.   In 1984, the United States Supreme Court held that the National Park Service could regulate the “time, place, and manner” of protests in Lafayette Park across from the White House and therefore could prohibit overnight sleeping.  But interestingly, the court “assumed for present purposes” that sleeping in connection with a demonstration is “expressive conduct protected to some extent by the First Amendment.”  And two civil-rights-focused justices, Thurgood Marshall and William Brennan, wrote a dissent persuasively explaining why those particular protests should have been protected as speech:  because by sleeping outside, the protesters were trying to draw attention to homelessness.

Similarly, Occupy Minnesota protesters hope to draw attention to people who have been made homeless through foreclosures.  And to that end, the Minnesota effort has rightfully claimed some success.

But should the protesters’ rights be litigated in court, lawyers will have a tough time arguing that Hennepin County has no right to regulate the time, place, and manner of protests.   The other side likely would cite a 2008 federal-court decision where the federal court in Minnesota cited the Layfayette Park case to help explain how and why the City of St. Paul had a right to regulate protests outside the Republican National Convention.

Of course, Occupy Minnesota would be free to argue that the federal court got it wrong and that this situation is different.  And in some ways, it most certainly is.

Grassley Mowed Down

March 17, 2009

All right, so Charles Grassley is not from Minnesota, but he is from our neighbor to our south, and he’s a lawmaker who’s in the media spotlight today.  So I’m bending the Media Law Minnesota rules just a touch to blog on this week’s uproar over the Iowan’s comment that AIG executives might want to consider suicide.

If you haven’t heard, this is what the senator said on the air at WMT Radio in Cedar Rapids, Iowa:

The first thing that would make me feel a little bit better towards them if they’d follow the Japanese model and come before the American people and take that deep bow and say I’m sorry, and then either do one of two things — resign, or go commit suicide.

(Real audio here.)

Look, Chuck Grassley is not a dumb guy, but that was really, really dumb.

As a cub newspaper reporter in Iowa, I covered the good senator many times and was among the Iowa reporters who used to occassionally tape radio interviews with him.  Usually the interviews took place by phone.  I’d be in Iowa, and Grassley in Washington.  He was smart enough to ask whether any news had happened during the time he was in a committee meeting or on the Senate floor, just to make sure we reporters with access to the newswires would not ambush him with a question and make him sound dumb on the air.

This week, of course, Grassley sounded dumb all by himself, and it was his own fault.  But he’s loved in Iowa, and he’ll survive.  And, to be honest, he probably should.

But will we survive?  Will we news consumers survive the furor and the flaps over these quick-hit, gotcha sound bytes that permeate today’s news?  I have my fears.

In the grand scheme of things, Grassley’s comment was a non-event.  These are serious times, and we as news consumers are getting seriously distracted by stuff like this that succeeds only in diverting our collective attention away from the complicated issues that cannot and should not be captured in sound bytes.

Meanwhile, yet another newspaper bit the dust today — this one in Seattle.  Some folks say it’s about time.  But many of us are hungering for places where we can get our daily fix of stuff that matters.  With stories like the Grassley flap filling the blogs and airwaves, it’s getting harder and harder.