It’s time to undo LBJ’s dirty work

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dan_kennedy_140x14011By Dan Kennedy

Recently I wrote about a flaw in a recent proposal, published on the New York Times op-ed page, that newspapers seek to become non-profit, endowment-supported organizations. The flaw is this: under current U.S. tax law, non-profits must not seek to “influence legislation” or “participate in any campaign activity for or against political candidates.”

Now, there may be good reasons for newspapers to abandon their hoary old tradition of writing endorsements of political candidates, which are read by few and heeded by none. But surely staying on the good side of the federal revenuers is not an acceptable argument for giving up one’s First Amendment protections.

As I write in the Guardian this week, the idea that free speech is incompatible with tax-exempt status was handed down not by Jefferson and Madison but, rather, by Lyndon Johnson. In 1954, Johnson, then a first-term senator seeking re-election, pushed the anti-speech law through Congress in order to silence two organizations back in Texas that were working for his political opponent.

These days, the most vociferous critics of Johnson’s handiwork tend to be conservative evangelical pastors. During the presidential campaign, some even staged a protest, delivering explicitly political sermons and making sure the Internal Revenue Service knew about it.

Some liberals may cringe at the idea of freeing the likes of James Dobson and Tony Perkins from whatever strictures under which they must operate. But the great civil libertarian and journalist Nat Hentoff, a Northeastern University alumnus, criticized that attitude in the title of one of his books, “Free Speech for Me — but Not for Thee.”

The First Amendment must protect all speech, not just that with which we agree. It’s time to stop taxing free speech.

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