Moves to close US civil rights centre

Issue 

Moves to close US civil rights centre

By Andy Lang

WASHINGTON, D.C. — For the first time since the McCarthy era, the federal government may attempt to seize the property of a civil rights organisation.

Officials of other public-interest groups warn that the threatened government action against the Christic Institute — a liberal civil rights law centre — could establish a dangerous precedent that will block future civil lawsuits against the abuse of power by government agencies or private corporations.

The institute has won several landmark civil lawsuits, including the "Greensboro massacre" case against members of the American Nazi Party and Ku Klux Klan who assassinated demonstrators in 1979, and the "Silkwood" case against the nuclear industry. The institute does not charge legal fees and depends entirely on contributions from churches, Jewish philanthropies, private foundations and individual supporters.

Massive financial penalties have been ordered against the institute by a federal judge who blocked a politically controversial lawsuit four days before the trial was scheduled to begin.

The institute has already paid a $1.2 million punitive sanction imposed by a judge who ruled that a 1986 lawsuit filed by the institute was "frivolous". The suit, Avirgan v Hull, exposed 29 key figures in the Iran-contra scandal six months before the operation was officially acknowledged by the Reagan administration.

Now the institute faces additional penalties. In February, three judges of the federal appeals court in Atlanta, ruling that the institute's attempt to appeal the original sanctions order was also "frivolous", imposed new sanctions. The new fine may be fixed at $400,000.

This is the largest financial penalty imposed on a public-interest law organisation. According to the US Judicial Conference, the average federal sanctions order is $4000.

In a related development, the Internal Revenue Service may soon act on the recommendation of a regional office to revoke the institute's classification as a tax-exempt organisation. The sole basis of the IRS opinion appears to be the sanctions imposed in the Avirgan case.

The Bush administration began to investigate the institute last

year after a postcard campaign organised by the Avirgan defendants demanded that the IRS move against the public-interest law centre. A group of 24 conservative members of Congress also pressured the IRS to strip the institute's tax-exempt classification.

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