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House Oversight Committee continues chilling investigation into student groups and nonprofits

The Committee sent a letter to a nonprofit alleging ties to “foreign terrorist organizations” via association with Students for Justice in Palestine.
American flag on United States Capitol building

new letter from House Oversight and Accountability Committee Chairman James Comer to the executive director of American Muslims for Palestine is a chilling development in the ongoing congressional investigations following the October 7 Hamas attacks and subsequent Israeli military operation in Gaza.

Campus protests and allegations of anti-Semitism prompted Congress and the U.S. Department of Education to launch investigations into institutions of higher education to examine their compliance with federal antidiscrimination law. Congressional committees also announced investigations into nonprofit organizations the committees allege have funded illegal activities. 

Since the beginning of these inquiries, FIRE has been clear that Congress and the Education Department must conduct investigations in ways that avoid violating the First Amendment or encouraging censorship of constitutionally protected speech. 

Unfortunately, we’ve seen several congressional actions on the wrong side of that line. 

In mid-May, two congressional committee chairs sent a letter to the Treasury Department, asking for private financial information about dozens of non-profit organizations and their employees. The letter says the request sought to help the committee investigate the funding of “anti-American” protests on campus. But, of course, the right to dissent and criticize one’s country is central to freedom of speech and the First Amendment. 

This is a sweeping assertion of legislative power that is ripe for abuse now and in the future.

The alarming reference of “anti-American[ism]” evokes the rhetoric of the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee during the Red Scare and suggests the committees are targeting these groups for their political viewpoints. Because of the serious risk the inquiry will chill constitutionally protected speech, FIRE joined a coalition letter led by the National Coalition Against Censorship condemning Congress’s fishing expedition.

On May 29, Chairman Comer sent a letter requesting a litany of documents from American Muslims for Palestine, a non-profit advocacy organization. Comer’s letter alleged AMP is the parent organization of the National Students for Justice in Palestine, a non-profit whose chapters were involved in many of the campus protests. 

The letter cites numerous facets of SJP’s political positions and advocacy which enjoy First Amendment protection. This again implies the committee is targeting the investigation based on the organization’s viewpoints, which the chairman has condemned in other statements. 

The letter also claimed that SJP is engaging in “pro-Hamas propaganda,” might be responsible for “engaging in illegal activities at institutions of higher education,” and “might be receiving funding or other support from foreign or domestic sources which support the aims of Hamas or other foreign terrorist organizations.” Yet if the committee has evidence of unlawful activity by AMP, there is no sign of it in the letter. 

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Comer demanded that American Muslims for Palestine provide the committee with:

  • All documents and communications related to National SJP’s funding;
  • All documents and communications related to any National SJP policy, procedure, or standard operating practice to conduct due diligence or otherwise ensure that funding received by National SJP complies with all relevant laws related to terrorist financing; 
  • All documents and communications related to the Oct. 7, 2023, terrorist attack by Hamas, including, but not limited to, documents and communications related to National SJP’s public facing responses to the Oct. 7, 2023, terrorist attack by Hamas; 
  • All documents and communications related to the promotion by National SJP of illegal activity or activity providing material support to terrorist organizations including, but not limited to, Hamas; and 
  • All documents and communications, regardless of topic, created on or sent between Oct. 6-8, 2023, inclusive.

According to a follow-up letter Comer sent this week, American Muslims for Palestine responded by stating it cannot comply with the request because “AMP is neither the ‘parent’ nor ‘founder’ of National SJP, nor does it bear any corporate relationship to that entity.” 

Now the chairman is threatening to subpoena AMP:

If AMP continues to fail to produce the requested documents, I will consider other measures, including the use of compulsory process, to gain compliance and obtain this material. The Committee will continue to vigorously pursue information relevant to its oversight in this matter.

This is a sweeping assertion of legislative power that is ripe for abuse now and in the future. It would mean that the Oversight Committee could read the mail of any private organization with which the majority party — whoever is in power at the time — disagrees. 

Ten years ago many Republicans were rightfully outraged by IRS targeting of Tea Party-related groups because of their political positions, based in part on a theory that nonprofit groups skeptical of federal taxes would more likely violate tax law.

Broadly targeting organizations for being supportive of Palestinians based on a theory that such groups are likely to violate federal law prohibiting support for terrorist organizations is similarly dubious. If the committee has evidence that these organizations are responsible for unlawful activity that justifies congressional attention, it should disclose that evidence to demonstrate that this is more than a viewpoint-based fishing expedition. 

Congress has broad investigatory powers but must be cautious not to use those authorities in ways that punish Americans for exercising their First Amendment rights — even when they are saying things Congress opposes. Committees should not demand that advocacy organizations disclose their donor information and internal communications based on the organization’s viewpoints, or on a hunch that the organization might be involved in unlawful activity. Such fishing expeditions will chill free speech and association.

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