A flurry of recent advisory opinions from the Department of Justice’s FARA unit raise new questions about how the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) might apply to the nonprofit community. Adding to the uncertainty, these opinions arrive just as momentum is increasing for DOJ to adopt new regulations to clarify and update the pre-World War II law that has seen aggressive enforcement in the last decade.
FARA generally requires agents of foreign principals engaged in certain activities within the United States to influence domestic and foreign policy to register and publicly disclose the relationship and their activities to DOJ. In the last few years, enforcement has ramped up, with multiple indictments in the wake of investigations into foreign interference in the 2016 elections. As a result, organizations with international connections have called for greater guidance on the reach of what is a notoriously vague law. To this end, DOJ began releasing heavily redacted advisory opinions interpreting FARA and its regulations.
A common theme among opinions released in February 2022 is the scope of the so-called academic exemption, one of several exemptions to the law’s registration and reporting requirements. Under this exemption, an agent working on behalf of any kind of foreign principal need not register under FARA if the activity performed on behalf of the principal promotes bona fide religious, scholastic, academic, or scientific pursuits or the fine arts. Nonprofits, including universities and other educational organizations, religious groups, and other charitable organizations, have long relied on this exemption when engaging in activities that may cause them to be considered an “agent” of a foreign entity.