Reflections on an Experience with the Telephone Tax

Ruth Sesser

In 1966 Congress enacted a 10% tax on telephone service. According to President Johnson, with support from debate in Congress, the tax was necessary because of rising costs of the war in Vietnam.

Some who previously opposed the war on philosophical and political grounds seized the opportunity to put their opposition into concrete form. They began deducting the tax when paying their bill, telling the telephone company each time what they were doing and why.

The Telephone Company sent name of withholder and the amount withheld to the Internal Revenue Service. IRS began sending delinquency notices to those who refused to pay the tax. If the notices were ignored the IRS attached bank accounts, wages or property.

In 1970 a group in the Bay area started a movement to organize and legitimize the telephone tax protest. Those who joined were asked to send the amount deducted from their phone bill to a "trust fund" which had been set up. The World Peace Tax Fund grew out of this.

A Federal Court suit prepared to challenge the tax, to test its legality, on the theory that:

• Taxing power given to Congress cannot constitutionally be used to require taxpayers to support a war when no war had been declared.
• The tax forces people to support illegal acts committed as a matter of policy by our armed forces.
• It taxes and restrains freedom of speech

The IRS position was that it was simply a matter of people failing to pay a legal obligation and they would take any action necessary to recover withheld funds.

I had just moved to Modesto in 1970 to work as an Educational Assistant at a local church, after returning in summer of 1969 from Boston where I had been working as a Master's Degree in Sociology of Religion at Boston University School of Theology. The fellowship Grant that was financing my studies was used up when the study of 32 Southern California Baptist Churches, for which I was the office "anchor person", was completed. My only source of income was Social Security which I started receiving upon the death of my husband. It amounted to something like $200 a month. So, I returned to California, borrowed money to purchase a mobile home and for a long nine months barely survived until I found work.

My first job was at a church in Modesto, so suffice to say I had (I thought) little to lose by refusing to pay my telephone tax. Each month I withheld the telephone tax and wrote the telephone company stating my reason. Soon reminders came from IRS that I owed said tax. Records in my file show that on 12/3l/70 a notice was sent to me stating that "although the tax liability shown below was called to your attention, our records show that it has not been paid. The law authorizes filing of Federal tax liens and seizure of property to satisfy tax liability. Failure to comply with this request for payment means your property, wages, or other assets may be seized without notice. The amount was $2.72. Each quarter of the year in 1971 I received "Final Notice before Seizure" demands and on 9/9/71 I received a copy of a "Notice of Levy" which had been sent to the church for attachment to my salary. In June, 1971 I was out of work. Without saying it in so many words, I was quite certain that having to withhold my telephone tax and make payment to the IRS was a nuisance that the church financial secretary was not too happy with and also that other church officials saw it as an embarrassment or threat. It at least had some bearing on the decision to replace me.

The last letter in my file to Pacific Telephone is dated January 5, 1973. However, the last correspondence from IRS was dated March, 1976, still stating amount due. Since there was no wage to attach, and I remarried in 1973, therefore not paying a telephone bill in my previous name, to my recollection the whole thing just ceased to be an issue.

The World Peace Tax Fund struggled for recognition through many years, until in recent years I understand that legislation has been proposed that recognizes at least the concept of an alternative to paying taxes for war efforts. Although my change of lifestyle and numerous demands on time and money forced me to discontinue direct support for WPTF I still believe in the concept and hope to see it succeed, including my $$ support. Even though the IRS eventually secures the tax dollars withheld, there is the principle of free speech that we must insist on, or take the chance of losing that freedom.

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from Roots and Fruits, a publication of the Stanislaus Peace-Life Center

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