The IRS draws a bead on the NAACP

In a fiery speech last summer to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Chairman Julian Bond criticized President Bush and a slew of other national leaders, past and present, Democrat and Republican alike. Mr. Bond did not recommend a presidential candidate, but he did compare in explicit terms what civil-rights proponents could expect under a Democratic and a Republican administration. The Republicans got a blistering in that comparison.

Secret complaints

A group known for its civil-rights advocacy should expect no less from its leaders. But the speech incensed at least two members of Congress enough for them to call for an investigation by the Internal Revenue Service via an audit of the NAACP's tax-exempt status. The identity of the two complainants is secret.

Tax-exempt groups can criticize political figures, but they're prohibited from engaging in most political activities. Those who do indulge in such actions risk losing their tax-free status. Mr. Bond, some experts believe, skirted dangerously close to that risk. In October, the IRS informed the NAACP that it was auditing the group, citing the law banning tax-exempt organizations from ``intervening in any political campaign on behalf of or in opposition to any candidate for public office.''

The IRS is investigating more than 60 tax-exempt groups, including churches and charities, for allegedly violating the same rule -- and a good thing, too. The 2004 presidential race inspired preachers, ministers and many religious and special-interest groups to take sides with a vehemence not seen recently.

But the agency appears to be more aggressive in its investigation of the NAACP than other groups. Usually, the IRS does an audit after the organization in question has filed its tax return for that year. Instead, it launched the NAACP audit at the height of the presidential-election campaign. What was the IRS's rush?

NAACP officials say that the agency attempted to discredit it during the heated battle for the White House.

IRS Commissioner Mark Everson rejects this, saying that the IRS follows strict procedures when complaints are lodged. Maybe so. But has the agency so vigorously gone after any other group that drew similar complaints during the presidential campaign?

Financial blow

Feeling singled out for persecution, the NAACP board of directors voted not to cooperate with the IRS. This issue will surely end up in court. The risk to the NAACP is that it will lose its tax-exempt status, a devastating financial blow.

Tax-exempt groups can chastise and otherwise criticize elected officials. They just can't take sides in a campaign. So the greatest risk here is that the IRS's selective aggressiveness toward an alleged violator could have a terrible chilling effect on all tax-exempt groups' free speech.