FIRST ON THE DAILY SIGNAL—The Southern Poverty Law Center routinely brands mainstream conservative and Christian organizations “hate groups,” placing them on a map with chapters of the Ku Klux Klan, but most lawsuits aiming to hold the SPLC accountable for this alleged defamation have failed.
On Friday, however, a federal judge denied the SPLC’s motion to dismiss a defamation lawsuit, allowing the case to proceed.
The SPLC branded the Georgia-based Dustin Inman Society an “anti-immigrant hate group” in February 2018 after the SPLC had previously stated in 2011 that it did not consider the society a “hate group.” The society, named after a 16-year-old Georgia boy killed in a 2000 car crash caused by an illegal immigrant, aims to combat illegal immigration.
“After telling the Associated Press in 2011 that we were not a ‘hate group,’ the SPLC changed their mind and made us an ‘anti-immigrant hate group’ within days of their registering as active lobbyists against pro-enforcement, immigration-related legislation here in the Georgia Capitol,” D.A. King, the society’s founder and president, told The Daily Signal in an emailed statement Tuesday.
King claimed that the SPLC’s “goal was clearly to paint us as the extremists and to marginalize us in the eyes of state lawmakers and the media. That effort was largely successful.”
As I explain in my book “Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center,” the SPLC took the program it used to monitor the Ku Klux Klan—the Intelligence Project—and weaponized it against conservatives and Christians, branding them “hate groups” in an effort to raise money and demonize its ideological opponents. The SPLC has an endowment of more than $500 million and bank accounts in the Cayman Islands. Amid a racial discrimination and sexual harassment scandal in 2019 that led the SPLC to fire its co-founder, a former employee came forward, calling the “hate” accusations a “highly profitable scam.”
King’s lawsuit quotes Heidi Beirich—then-director of the Intelligence Project—who told The Associated Press in 2011 that the SPLC did not consider the society a “hate group,” but rather listed King as a “nativist.”
“His tactics have generally not been to get up in the face of actual immigrants and threaten them,” Beirich said. “Because he is fighting, working on his legislation through the political process, that is not something we can quibble with, whether we like the law or not.”
The lawsuit claims that the SPLC did not indicate that King or the Dustin Inman Society had changed their activities between 2011 and 2018—in fact, many of the statements and activities the SPLC cites as evidence that the society is a “hate group” date back to before 2011.
The lawsuit cites an SPLC definition for “anti-immigrant hate group” that dates back to 2020, which no longer appears on the SPLC website—although the center appears not to have adopted a new definition:
Anti-immigrant hate groups are the most extreme of the hundreds of nativist groups that have proliferated since the late 1990s, when anti-immigration xenophobia began to rise to levels not seen in the United States since the 1920s. Most white hate groups are also anti-immigrant, but anti-immigrant hate groups single out that population with dehumanizing and demeaning rhetoric. Although many groups legitimately criticize American immigration policies, anti-immigrant hate groups go much further by pushing racist propaganda and ideas about non-white immigrants.
While the SPLC brands the society an “anti-immigrant hate group,” it does not point to any specific evidence that King or the society “maligned an entire class of people” or fit the definition cited above. “Further, a cursory review of [Plaintiff] DIS’s website would have revealed that the Board of Advisors of [Plaintiff] DIS is a diverse group of Americans with a variety of racial and immigrant backgrounds,” the lawsuit alleges.
Inger Eberhart, a member of the society’s board and its director of communications, is a black woman; Everette Robinson and Catherine Davis are also black; Mary Grabar is a legal immigrant from Slovenia (then part of Yugoslavia); Maria Litland is a legal immigrant who appears on the Austrian Society of America website; and Sabine Durden-Coulter immigrated legally from Germany. Durden-Coulter lost her son in a 2012 car crash caused by an illegal immigrant (with no connection to the crash that killed Dustin Inman).
While the SPLC claimed not to have any knowledge of the society’s board in legal filings, the SPLC’s article on the society notes its “eight-member board of advisors.”
The lawsuit alleges that the SPLC twisted statements from King and Fred Elbel, another member of the society’s board, out of context.
The SPLC quotes King in a 2007 Georgia Republican Club meeting, warning that certain illegal immigrants are “not here to mow your lawn—they’re here to blow up your buildings and kill your children, and you, and me.” King sent The Daily Signal a link to the original report on the meeting, which shows that King was referring to illegal immigrants “from countries with known ties to terrorism.”
The SPLC also quotes Elbel’s words—in which the board member claims to “hate ’em all,” listing a broad swath of ethnic and other groups including White Anglo-Saxon Protestants—from a 2004 internal Sierra Club offshoot discussion group post Elbel says he intended as parody.
King sent a demand letter on Feb. 10, 2020, ordering the SPLC to retract its “hate group” accusation. The SPLC did not respond and continued to repeat the “verifiably false fabrication and accusation,” the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit notes that “by repeatedly claiming the mantle of specialized knowledge and expertise, and using a specific, fact-based definition to determine what a ‘hate group’ is,” the SPLC’s accusation “causes severe reputational damage and for the target to live in a climate of constant fear for personal safety and that of his family.”
The lawsuit cites the 2012 terrorist attack in which a man targeted the Family Research Council’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., after finding the council on the SPLC’s “hate map.” The man pleaded guilty to committing an act of terrorism and received a 25-year prison sentence. The SPLC condemned the attack, but has kept the Family Research Council on its hate map ever since.
The lawsuit also cites the March 2017 protest against Charles Murray, instigated by the SPLC’s accusation that Murray engages in “racist pseudoscience.”
The lawsuit also lists a plethora of statements the SPLC has made about the society, which King claims to be blatant falsehoods. Among other things, the SPLC has claimed the Dustin Inman Society was incorporated in 2003, when King in fact founded it in 2005; it has claimed that the DIS was previously known as the American Resistance Foundation; it has claimed that King worked on immigration issues since the 1990s, although he did not become interested in the issues until 2003; and it claimed King worked for the Georgia Coalition of Immigration Reduction in the 1990s, which he claims to be false.
“These admissions taken together show that Defendant SPLC not only fails to investigate or have expertise at all on groups it monitors, but instead shows reckless disregard for the truth and does not appear to perform any fact-finding at all, before labeling … DIS a ‘hate group,’” the lawsuit states.
King is seeking a trial, compensatory damages, punitive damages, and a permanent injunction ordering the SPLC to remove its accusations and issue a public retraction and apology.
While a judge dismissed a previous version of King’s lawsuit without prejudice in March 2022, the society’s president filed a new lawsuit in June. Judge W. Keith Watkins denied the SPLC’s motion to dismiss the new lawsuit on Friday. The judge’s ruling allows the lawsuit to proceed to the discovery phase, in which the society can demand the SPLC hand over documents to prove its case and the SPLC can demand society documents to defend itself.
In his statement on the judge’s ruling, King cited 2007 remarks from Mark Potok, at the time editor-in-chief at the SPLC’s Intelligence Report.
“Potok made the SPLC’s intentions on opposition clear when he admitted in a speech, ‘I want to say plainly that our aim in life is to destroy these groups, to completely destroy them,’” King told The Daily Signal. “That was and is the goal in attacking me and the Dustin Inman Society. We are a bit flattered in that we operate on personal funds and small donations.”
King noted that in this lawsuit, “We want to not only defend our own reputation, but maybe make the SPLC think twice before they smear other honest pro-enforcement Americans.”
The society is seeking $25,000 in donations to fund its legal effort against the SPLC. Supporters can contribute on GoFundMe.
“Making Hate Pay” details multiple defamation lawsuits against the SPLC from organizations and individuals branded as “hate groups” or “extremists.” The SPLC paid $3.375 million to settle with Maajid Nawaz, a Muslim reformer it had branded an “anti-Islamic extremist.”
While Liberty Counsel President Mat Staver told PJ Media that after Nawaz’s lawsuit, about 60 different organizations were considering defamation lawsuits against the SPLC, few of those lawsuits materialized. D. James Kennedy Ministries, which sued SPLC and Amazon (which had relied on the SPLC “hate group” accusation to remove organizations from the Amazon Smile charity fundraising platform), appealed its case to the Supreme Court, but the court ultimately refused to hear it.
Defamation cases face extremely high hurdles due to the Supreme Court’s precedents from New York Times v. Sullivan (1964) onward. D. James Kennedy Ministries unsuccessfully challenged the standard requiring defamation plaintiffs who count as “public figures” to demonstrate “actual malice” on the part of the defendant.
King’s lawsuit introduces new elements in litigation against the SPLC: a former SPLC admission that DIS was not considered a “hate group” and multiple blatantly false statements of fact that the SPLC arguably cannot wave away as mere opinion.
In this case, the SPLC similarly argues that its “hate group” accusation is “non-actionable opinion under the First Amendment.” The center claims that it does not “matter whether SPLC keeps track of and publicizes how many organizations it has designated as hate groups. This does not somehow mean that any of the individual hate group designations themselves are factual.”
This represents the height of duplicity: out of one side of its mouth, the SPLC urges Big Tech and the government to block funding and visibility for “hate groups,” while out of the other side of its mouth, it defends this “hate group” defamation by dismissing it as mere opinion and not factual when challenged in court.
The Southern Poverty Law Center did not respond to The Daily Signal’s request for comment by publication time.
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