- - Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Lois Lerner has competition in Texas as the undisputed queen of harassment. For the past two years, the Texas Ethics Commission has been harassing Empower Texans and seven other conservative organizations with an order, renewed last month, demanding that the groups hand over subscriber lists, the names of all contributors, bank records and correspondence. The commission hasn’t asked for Christmas card lists or favorite chili recipes, but it’s still early.

Ms. Lerner issued similar demands to Tea Party groups throughout the country from her position monitoring harassment targets at the Internal Revenue Service. A liberal Wisconsin prosecutor went after conservative groups with the same zeal until a federal judge ordered his investigation shut down.

Such outrages are expected in Washington and in certain blue states, but ham-handed pursuit of conservatives is not usually on the agenda in Texas.

Demanding lists from political groups has been clearly illegal since 1957, when a unanimous Supreme Court told Alabama it couldn’t order the NAACP to hand over its membership roster. Freedom from such snooping is, the justices said, “so related to the right of the members to pursue their lawful private interests privately and to associate freely with others in so doing as to come within the protection of the Fourteenth Amendment.”

Nonetheless, liberals talk a lot about fighting the “evil” influence of money in political campaigns, insisting the people have a right to know who supports which groups — so long as those same rules don’t apply to unions, which bankroll Democrats. Schemes at the state and federal level require “disclosure” through new laws, or when legislatures won’t enact the right laws, through taxing and regulatory bodies such as the IRS and the Texas Ethics Commission.

But even when a federal judge shuts down unconstitutional information requests and subpoenas, the tormentors often prevail. They succeed in tying up adversaries in a time-consuming and expensive legal battle. Every dollar spent on lawyers is a dollar not spent advocating lower taxes and smaller government.

Empower Texans was established to advocate fiscal conservatism, but Michael Quinn Sullivan, the group’s president, now realizes how central the First Amendment is even to budget and taxes. “The past two years have been very enlightening,” he tells this newspaper. “It has in fact changed our focus, after a fashion.”

Whoever controls speech can determine the outcome of political races and public policy disputes. “Campaign-finance reform rules,” says Benjamin Barr, a First Amendment lawyer in Washington, “are regulations about who’s allowed to participate in the democratic process, and who’s not. Who’s in, and who’s out. Who’s allowed to speak and during what time frames, and how much money goes into each groups.”

The first priority of all politicians writing campaign-finance rules is to defend their own jobs. Taking tender care of incumbents is the first order of business. That’s why, regardless of whether Republican or Democrat, they must never be allowed trampling rights on the right of free speech.

This example of harassment of conservative groups in a deep-red state ought to be a warning to Tea Party organizations everywhere. If they can do it in Texas, they can do it anywhere.

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