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Exactly what is free speech, and who gets to exercise it tax-free? The answer may be up to the most unlikely of political institutions: the IRS. Frontiers of Freedom, a conservative think tank founded by retired Wyoming Republican Senator Malcolm Wallop, has asked the Internal Revenue Service to investigate San Francisco–based Rainforest Action Network (RAN) for violating the conditions of its tax-exempt status. The test case brings scrutiny to the previously not-so-thin line between “education” and “advocacy,” and could affect the mission stance of tax-exempt groups across the political spectrum.
Frontiers of Freedom makes its intentions abundantly clear in a press release titled “Test Case Could Slash Donations to Radical Environmental Groups,” and charges Rainforest with devoting its “$3 million–plus annual war chest to pressure campaigns aimed at forcing companies to change the way they do business.” And for advocating civil disobedience and direct action that result in arrest. The six-page complaint letter to the IRS (see it on Frontiers’ Web site, www.ff.org) documents the insults to vulnerable corporate interests, including Mitsubishi, Home Depot, timber giant Boise Cascade, L.A.’s own Occidental Petroleum, the World Trade Organization, Chevron, PacBell and others — mostly companies for whom $3 million wouldn’t even buy one TV advertising campaign.
Most of the listed offenses are banner-hangs — one resulting in felony convictions — but the document is not without a few lighthearted moments, such as “On October 24, 2000, RAN activists taunted Boise Cascade by floating over the company’s headquarters in a 120-foot inflatable balloon shaped like a dinosaur and bearing a sign reading: ‘Boise Cascade: I love logging old growth.’”
This, according to Frontiers, does not fall under the legal definition of “charitable” or “educational” activities.
“We consider it to be self-evident that protests and demonstrations are educational,” says Rainforest campaigns director Mike Brune. “A banner-hang at a Boise Cascade headquarters gets on television stations in 200 outlets across the country, talking about the problems of deforestation and old-growth-forest destruction and species extinction. What could be more educational than that?”
More important, says Brune, Rainforest looks at this as a direct attack on protected free speech.
“We see this as not necessarily a quest for tax justice, but we see it as a more sophisticated attempt to silence those who criticize corporate abuses of power. As Frontiers of Freedom has indicated [in its press release], if it is successful in this effort, it’ll move on to other environmental and social-justice groups.”
“We have said this right from the start: This is not an ideology problem,” replies Christa Floresca, Frontiers’ director of development. “We don’t want to stop their right to free speech. We feel they are not engaging in educational activities. If you ask the average layman, there is no amount of protesting and boycotting that is going to be seen as educational.”
Then why, in particular, target Rainforest? Floresca’s response shows Frontiers’ true colors: “Since the fall, they have really put themselves into the forefront, with regard to the environmental movement that seems to be engaging in these types of activities. They have practically asked to be scrutinized.”
Rainforest launched a campaign specifically targeting Boise Cascade in September 2000, and the timing of Frontiers’ challenge has Rainforest crying foul. Over the past year, Boise Cascade has attacked RAN on the company’s Web site and sent letters to the group’s high donors complaining about “lawless and illegal activities” — the same charges that are made in the IRS letter. When Rainforest organized an “Old Growth Summit,” in Boise, Idaho, this summer, Malcolm Wallop denounced them as “anti-capitalist radicals” intent on bringing Seattle-style destruction and fomenting a new American revolution. Similarly, avowed anti-environmentalist Ron Arnold, guru to the so-called Wise Use Movement and executive V.P. of the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise, has been responding to every move against Boise Cascade on his own parody Web site, www.ranamuck.org.
The issue centers on the IRS code. “The point here is that they should have a 501(c)(4) designation, and not (c)(3),” says Arnold. Under (c)(4) rules, donations would no longer be considered “charitable contributions” and not be tax-deductible. When asked whether he is defending corporate interests, he blurts, “It’s called the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise. Do Boise Cascade pay us? No, they don’t. I wish. Do we defend them? Of course we defend them. Duh.”
Rainforest cannot prove that Wallop and others are in Boise Cascade’s pockets, and Floresca adamantly denies it: “Frontiers of Freedom, since its inception in 1995, has not received one single dollar of support from Boise Cascade.”
The debate over RAN’s tax status is not without precedent in the world of environmental advocacy. Some 35 years ago the Sierra Club, under the leadership of firebrand David Brower, lost its tax-exempt status because of its role in halting construction of two major government dams in the Grand Canyon.
Back then, Brower claimed that losing the tax exemption was good because it weeded out those who cared about such inconsequential things as taxes. But RAN supporters worry that the threat of an IRS audit could hurt the group.
“Absolutely it has a chilling effect,” says Jim Wheaton, senior attorney with the First Amendment Project, a Bay Area nonprofit, public-interest law firm. “The allegation here is not that individuals go out and engage in civil disobedience. The challenge here, though, is that RAN supports that activity. Once you get into something as vague as ‘support,’ it gets dangerous. RAN itself has never trespassed, itself has never engaged in civil disobedience, but it’s supporting those who do. You have a fear, then, that this will spread not only to those who engage in civil disobedience, but those who support them, as well.”
Rainforest, for its part, is pushing straight ahead. A large group of demonstrators, including blues rocker Bonnie Raitt, former Doors drummer John Densmore, Julia Butterfly Hill, author Paul Hawken, a few ex–Congress members and a whole host of activist biggies plan to tax Boise Cascade’s patience even further this week when they protest at the company’s Chicago-area headquarters.