ALA Voluntarily Censors its entire membership, again

So I wake up of a weekend to find a piece of trash in me inbox from James Rettig via Keith Fiels about what they consider political speech.

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-----Forwarded Message-----
From: Keith Michael Fiels
Sent: Sep 5, 2008 3:49 PM
To: ALACOUN
Subject: [alacoun] Message from ALA President Jim Rettig

Dear Colleagues:

Over the last several weeks, there has been considerable discussion and many questions raised about the constraints imposed by federal law on ALA as a nonprofit charitable organization. On the other hand, there has also been considerable interest in having a forum available where ALA members could freely discuss political topics and the current election in relation to library issues.
ALA, because of its 501(c)(3) tax exempt status, is expressly and absolutely prohibited by the U.S. Internal Revenue Code from engaging in “political speech.” This means that ALA resources, including electronic discussion lists, blogs and wikis, cannot be used for “the support of, or opposition to, a candidate for public office”. Political speech is different from “lobbying,” which seeks to influence legislation or regulation (ALA continues to lobby aggressively for libraries within federal guidelines).

The consequence of violating this legal prohibition is the revocation of tax exempt status. No warnings are required, and the IRS has repeatedly revoked the 501(c)(3) status of organizations considered in violation of these regulations. The absolute prohibition on political speech by associations like ALA is serious — and the “zero tolerance” enforcement policy of the IRS has been upheld by the courts, including the Supreme Court. We - ALA officers, staff and members - are required to comply with these laws until such time as Congress changes them. In doing so, we protect the interests of the Association and its members - present and future - and preserve ALA’s ability to advocate aggressively on behalf of libraries and the public. Simply put, the loss of our 501(c)(3) status would have a catastrophic impact on the Association.

For more information about the IRS prohibition on political speech by 501(c)(3) tax exempt organizations, as well as links to additional information, please see the Marginalia blog posting at http://discuss.ala.org/marginalia/2008/03/12/election-year/

Some members have inquired about challenging this prohibition. Given that the Supreme Court has upheld this IRS regulation, a legal challenge would not be a wise use of ALA resources. Other members have pointed out that there are exemptions for universities and that churches appear to be granted more latitude by the IRS. Both of these statements are true, but do not affect the rules for charitable organizations such as ALA.

Notwithstanding this prohibition, many ALA members have expressed an interest in discussing the election and the candidates in relation to library issues. While this discussion cannot legally occur within the ALA 501(c)(3) structure, the 501(c)(6) ALA-Allied Professional Association does open up new opportunities for such discussions. As a 501(c)(6), operating under different IRS rules, ALA-APA can legally provide a forum for such discussions.

To this end, the ALA-APA Board has authorized the creation of an ALA-APA Forum discussion list to discuss mutual issues of interest to librarians and other library workers, including political issues and candidates. This list is open to ALA members and others. To subscribe to the APA Forum, go to:. http://lists.ala-apa.org/sympa/info/apaforum
Questions have also been raised about the limitations placed upon American Libraries and AL Direct. While stories that may be construed as supporting or opposing any candidate for public office are prohibited by the IRS as political speech, AL and AL Direct will continue to provide factual information and breaking current news on library-related issues, including those involving candidates for public office, as it occurs.

In closing, I would encourage you to distribute this information to any and all ALA discussion lists and member forums. Also, if you have any questions, please contact Karen Muller, the ALA Librarian, at kmuller@ala.org.

Sincerely,

James Rettig

ALA President

ALA-APA President

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My kneejerk reaction was that they were seriously misconstruing the actual interpretation of laws on the books if not the letter of the law itself. So I screamed for the comfy skirts or possibly pants of a Law Librarian. You know, that brave man or woman you ought seek shelter from in a legal shitestorm. The ones that actually *know* what the hell they're doing, instead of pretending to know.

Unable to hear back right away, and extremely fidgety from way too much caffeine and World of Warcraft, I set about looking for real guidelines, not fakey organisational ones. And here we are, incredibly simple to find in plain English from the IRS.

http://www.irs.gov/pub/irs-tege/2008_paci_party_letter.pdf

The whole document is only 3 pages on my viewer and worth every word.

"The prohibition on political campaign activity applies only to tax-exempt charitable
organizations, not to the activities of individuals in their private capacity. The political campaign
activity prohibition is not intended to restrict free expression on political matters by leaders of
charitable organizations, including churches, speaking for themselves, as individuals. Nor are
leaders prohibited from speaking about important issues of public policy. However, for their
organizations to remain tax-exempt under section 501(c)(3), leaders cannot make partisan
comments in official organization publications or at official organization functions, including
official church publications and functions."

That seems far afield of this:

"We - ALA officers, staff and MEMBERS (emphasis mine) - are required to comply with these laws until such time as Congress changes them. "

It would sure as heck seem to me that Library related issues are important matters of public policy to me. It would also seem that having a non official forum related to discussion of political issues in which our *leaders* did not take an active role in would be a good thing. (Yes, they have a right to as individuals, but safer, methinks to steer clear of them if yer name be Keith Fiels or Jim Rettig. In especial since you think all folks ought be censored, not just you.)

Either we stand for intellectual freedom, or we do not. Either we truly promote democracy, or we do not. We ought to change our official stances to reflect that this organisation uses its discretion perpetually on intellectual freedom and matters of censorship, just as we play at Democracy when we feel the need.

For what it's worth, I didn't renew my ALA membership, and am happy to not be a member when it's apparent the leadership by and large is continuing the same squelching that's been going on for years.

Also of note is a councilor with their head screwed on: Elaine Harger of SRRT. (Do we see a pattern here? SRRT rocks!) Thank goodness someone immediately called out the bad decision.