The examination of foreign influence on U.S. elections has put a heavy focus on the Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA), the Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA), an until-fairly-recently-somewhat-ignored law that requires those working for a foreign “principal” to influence U.S. government policy to register as a foreign agent. Several individuals involved connected with the Russia-gate proceedings have been charged with failure to register under FARA.

This renewed focus has led Congress to introduce more than 10 bills intended to strengthen FARA, and more recently, has led the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to interpret the law more broadly, presenting serious implications for U.S. nonprofit organizations (NPOs). In April 2018 46 humanitarian and development organizations sent Congress a letter outlining concerns about the potential for overly broad application of the law to normal civil society activity.

Now a DOJ memo released earlier this year indicates these fears are justified. This memo evokes Jeff Foxworthy’s old jokes around “You might be a redneck if ….” According to the DOJ memo, you might be a foreign agent if ….. you receive foreign funding to “influence any section of the public within the United States with reference to formulating, adopting, or changing the domestic or foreign policies of the United States.” (emphasis added)

In this case a U.S. public relations firm was hired by three U.S. NPOs to influence “the behavior of U.S. companies with respect to their [text deleted] policies concerning [text deleted] supply chain and product sourcing…” The memo further states that FARA’s definition of “political activities” are those that “a person believes will, or intends to, in any way influence any section of the public within the United States ‘with reference to the political or public interests, policies, or relations of a government of a foreign country or a foreign political party.’ ” DOJ explains that the PR firm’s work here satisfies the definition of “political activities” because those activities are intended to “advance the product-sourcing practices that are in the political and public interests of, and the policies of, the government of [foreign country]…”

In other words, you might be a foreign agent if you receive foreign funding, despite the fact that your organization does not intended to influence U.S. government policy. Although the foreign entity noted in the memo was “originally funded by government,” there is no indication that the funding for this specific project came from a foreign government.

While many found Foxworthy’s redneck jokes amusing, the implications here for U.S. NPOs receiving foreign funding are not.

See also: InterAction FAQ on FARA