Editor’s note: Brian Levin’s history formed an essential part of this story, so his response to The Daily Signal justified a significant update. The original version of this article suggested that Levin’s history at the Southern Poverty Law Center and his uncritical citing of the SPLC’s “hate group” accusations should terrify conservatives. His comments to The Daily Signal dispelled those concerns, so the article has been updated accordingly. His statement is printed in full below.
Gov. Gavin Newsom, D-Calif., on Tuesday announced five appointments to his new Commission on the State of Hate, and they send mixed messages for conservatives in the Golden State.
According to Newsom’s office, the commission will “assess data on hate crimes in California, provide resources for victims, and make policy recommendations to better protect civil rights.”
The commission aims to help all Californians, but Newsom has nominated a slate of Democrats and activists—without including a single Republican—to serve on it.
The one non-Democrat, Brian Levin, once worked at the Southern Poverty Law Center. Ironically, however, he may be the one silver lining for conservatives, giving some hope that the commission may investigate violent threats from both sides of the aisle.
The Southern Poverty Law Center has morphed from a public interest legal nonprofit representing poor people in the south into a far-left smear factory, branding mainstream conservative and Christian organizations “hate groups” and placing them on a map alongside the Ku Klux Klan. It brands socially conservative organizations “anti-LGBT hate groups” and national security nonprofits “anti-Muslim hate groups.”
My 2020 book “Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center” explains why the SPLC should not be trusted when it comes to “hate” in America. I trace the history of the SPLC’s “hate” monitoring, which it initially employed against the Klan and other white supremacist groups, but which it has wielded as a cudgel against ideological opponents in recent decades. Most notoriously, this “hate group” accusation inspired one deranged terrorist to target the Family Research Council in Washington, D.C.
While the SPLC condemned that attack, it has kept the Family Research Council on its “hate map” ever since. The SPLC also fired its co-founder and had its president resign in 2019 amid claims of sexual harassment and racial discrimination.
Yet Levin does not represent this new SPLC. He worked at the organization in the 1990s, before it used the “hate group” accusation to smear conservatives. While Levin did not originally respond to The Daily Signal’s request for comment by publication time, he responded to the original version of this article in a statement printed in full below.
Levin recounted to The Daily Signal that he was deeply moved by attacks on churches in the 1990s, and that he advocated for legislation expanding “various state and federal laws and resources to address these acts of terror directed against people of faith.” He supported the Republican-introduced bipartisan Church Arson Prevention Act of 1996 and its 2018 expansion, which then-President Donald Trump signed into law.
Levin also condemned “a disturbing rise in cowardly attacks against our churches and institutions across North America – not to mention other parts of the world.” He announced his intention to “organize a volunteer task force of faith leaders to make sure religious institutions in our state have their safety and security needs met. Urgent action is needed: last year there were nearly 70 attacks on houses of worship in our state – a 47% increase over 2020.”
“My earnest wish for my Christian friends, who I care for so very much, can be summed up in the words that President Washington wrote to the Jewish Congregants of Touro Synagogue in Rhode Island in 1790: May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and Figtree, and there shall be none to make him [her or they] afraid,” Levin added.
“In our California, any bias motivated violent attack against our residents because of their faith, race, national origin, documentation status, sexual orientation, gender identity and disability, among others is an attack upon us all,” he said. “As the Governor’s office rightly stated our Commission’s mission and work is to protect all Californians’ civil liberties, and I am steadfastly committed to that end.”
Levin’s record does indeed demonstrate a bipartisan concern. In 2012, he condemned the violent attack at FRC. When black bloc agitators physically attacked conservative reporter and commentator Andy Ngo, Levin criticized Ngo’s commentary but noted that “to his credit, I’ve never seen him be the physical aggressor in the posts that he’s made generally.” Levin has repeatedly drawn attention to the violence that Christians face in other countries, and he has defended free speech, even when he considers it vile.
Levin may not follow the current SPLC’s strategy on “hate groups,” but other members of the commission might. The SPLC claims to have identified 65 “hate groups” in California, including seven chapters of the national security nonprofit ACT for America, which SPLC characterizes as an “anti-Muslim hate group.”
Brigitte Gabriel, founder and chairman of ACT for America, previously told PJ Media that the organization rejected its “chapter” model years ago. Not only does she dispute the “hate group” charge, she also claims the SPLC’s ACT for America chapter number is baseless.
“Conservative Californians should be extremely concerned about this commission and the way it will operate,” Gabriel told The Daily Signal on Thursday. “Government agencies and departments on all levels are now weaponized against good, patriotic Americans simply for their political views.”
“The SPLC, which once did good work to stamp out hate, is today a leftist activist organization, writing opinion reports against their political adversaries—which government agencies are using as a fact sheet to silence and intimidate patriotic Americans,” she warned.
Daniel Greenfield, Shillman Journalism fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center (which the SPLC brands an “anti-Muslim hate group”), told The Daily Signal that he “would strongly agree” with conservatives’ concerns about the California commission. He cited “California’s new law monitoring so-called hate speech” and the state’s “previous role in reporting social media so-called disinformation to social media companies for censorship.”
“Newsom and the California Democrat supermajority have cultivated a culture of censorship and political intimidation that is targeted at conservatives,” Greenfield added. “Every Californian and American who cares about the Constitution should be worried.”
A spokesperson for Newsom’s office did not address concerns about the bias of the commission. The spokesperson did, however, express confidence that the commissioners would protect civil liberties.
“We are confident that the appointees will uphold the Commission’s mission and work to protect Californians’ civil liberties,” the spokesperson said.
Levin did not specify a political affiliation, but the press release identifies all of Newsom’s other appointees as Democrats. Thse appointees include Cynthia Choi, a co-director of Chinese for Affirmative Action and co-founder of Stop Asian-American Pacific Islander Hate; Bamby Salcedo, a transgender activist and president and CEO of the TransLatin@ Coalition; Shirin Sinnar, a professor at Stanford Law School; and Erroll G. Southers, associate senior vice president of safety and risk assurance at the University of Southern California, who also has law enforcement and private-sector security experience.
Choi was unavailable for comment. Salcedo, Sinnar, and Southers did not respond to The Daily Signal’s request for comment by publication time.
While Levin’s commitment to opposing extremism from both the Right and the Left should reassure conservatives, Newsom’s commission still skews heavily in the Democratic direction. The California Legislature has more seats to fill on the commission, and legislators should choose Republicans to balance out some of this bias. Levin may not represent the modern SPLC’s demonization of conservatives in the name of fighting “hate,” but any such commission should include hate monitors from both sides of the aisle.
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Full Statement of Brian Levin:
It is often said that “a lie travels halfway round the world before the truth has got its boots on” and this is such a case – so I appreciate the opportunity to finally set the record straight.
I proudly stand by my work in Alabama from over a quarter century ago during the couple of years I worked there, where my primary focus was using legal tools to track, expose and bring to justice violent bigoted criminal extremists like the Ku Klux Klan and Neo-Nazi skinheads whose brutal bigotry shattered lives, torched churches and tore at the core of our American aspiration for equality. Among my most vivid memories from that time was our-all-hands-on-deck response to a horrendous wave of church arsons, at mostly small African American churches across the South.
This had a profound impact on me and I can still recall breaking down in tears on the long drive back to Montgomery after I testified before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in Cleveland, Mississippi in July 1996 along with ATF supervisor Jim Cavanaugh and community members. Afterwards, I overheard a congregant say how their love of Jesus compelled him to forgive these arsonists, and I remember thinking Jesus may – but I don’t.
While forgiveness is something I sometimes struggle with, action is not and I have been active for three decades in pursuing the passage and expansion of various critical state and federal laws and resources to address these acts of terror directed against people of faith. This includes, inter alia, the passage of a Republican introduced bi-partisan bill called the Church Arson Prevention Act of 1996 and its 2018 expansion to also encompass threats directed at religious institutions. The expansion was co-sponsored by Senators Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and signed into law by President Trump. So, in short, I have nothing whatsoever to apologize for in that regard and never will.
Moreover, as the fortunate son of a decorated American World War II POW who was brutalized by the Nazis, I know all too well this threat, and am committed to the same bridge-building inter-faith, and bi-partisanship efforts that got the aforementioned laws passed. I remain steadfastly committed to addressing all vile forms of hate violence and terrorism, irrespective of whatever end of the ideological spectrum it originates.
So, you can imagine why it pains me deeply to see that some of my conservative Christian brothers and sisters sincerely, but mistakenly, may feel that the Commission I endeavored for years to establish, and which I serve on at no pay, would abandon a commitment to their safety and security at the very time we again bear witness to a disturbing rise in cowardly attacks against our churches and institutions across North America – not to mention other parts of the world. To turn our backs on people of faith now on this scourge is a violation of the oath I undertake next week, and it will never happen under our watch. I intend to organize a volunteer task force of faith leaders to make sure religious institutions in our state have their safety and security needs met. Urgent action is needed: last year there were nearly 70 attacks on houses of worship in our state – a 47% increase over 2020.
My earnest wish for my Christian friends, who I care for so very much, can be summed up in the words that President Washington wrote to the Jewish Congregants of Touro Synagogue in Rhode Island in 1790: May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and Figtree, and there shall be none to make him [her or they] afraid.
In our California, any bias motivated violent attack against our residents because of their faith, race, national origin, documentation status, sexual orientation, gender identity and disability, among others is an attack upon us all. As the Governor’s office rightly stated our Commission’s mission and work is to protect all Californians’ civil liberties, and I am steadfastly committed to that end.
Brian Levin, JD