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The SPLC's Fall From Grace: How a Civil Rights Group Became a Threat to Free Speech

Cover of "Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center." Credit Bombardier Books.

In 1971, direct-mail salesman Morris Dees got religion. He made his fortune teaming up with Millard Fuller — the man who would go on to found Habitat for Humanity — and Fuller had given away his fortune to become a missionary. Dees, who regretted not getting involved in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, sold his lucrative cookbook business and started a civil rights nonprofit, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC).

This same Southern Poverty Law Center would go on to become a notoriously wealthy and corrupt organization. Dees would find himself fired after a scandal involving claims of racial discrimination and sexual harassment. All this would be damning enough, but amid the scandal, former employees spilled the beans on an even bigger scandal — a “hate for pay” scheme exaggerating the number of “hate groups” in order to scare donors into cutting big checks. My new book, Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center, tells the story of how the SPLC fell so far from its noble intentions.

The SPLC started monitoring “hate groups” back in the 1980s. They began with the Ku Klux Klan and similar white supremacist terror groups, suing them into bankruptcy. Yet after easily defeating these real hate groups, the SPLC went on to target ever more mainstream organizations, mostly on the conservative side of the political spectrum.

The SPLC, originally founded to provide legal representation to poor people on death row, became a nefarious threat to America’s free speech culture. Politicians, the media, Big Tech, and corporate America consider the SPLC’s “hate group” list to be the gold standard in monitoring dangerous organizations that foment home-grown American terror. Just last month, an SPLC representative testified before Congress, asking Big Tech and the government to target “hate groups” for censorship in the name of fighting white supremacist terrorism like the horrific mosque shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand.

Alliance Defending Freedom, a law firm that has played a role in 56 victories before the Supreme Court, remains branded a “hate group” by the SPLC — even though ADF’s ideological opponents (including a former president of the ACLU) vehemently contest the accusation. In 2017, Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) compared ADF to the Cambodian dictator Pol Pot, citing the SPLC.

Acting on the SPLC’s supposed credibility, Amazon has excluded mainstream conservative Christian nonprofits from its charity program, Amazon Smile. The event managing site Eventbrite blacklisted a mainstream conservative national security nonprofit, ACT for America, citing the SPLC’s accusation that it is an “anti-Muslim hate group,” because it warns against radical Islamist terrorism. Hyatt Hotels did the same. Last year, The New York Times, the Miami Herald, and the Tampa Bay Times repeated SPLC talking points against ACT for America and successfully pressured Mar-a-Lago to cancel a gala with the conservative group.

Google has even worked with liberal groups like ProPublica to try to shut down conservative websites targeted by the SPLC. Credit card companies like Mastercard and Discover have refused to process donations to “hate groups” targeted by the SPLC.

Yet government officials have also endorsed the SPLC’s accusations against conservatives, weaponizing the law enforcement apparatus of the state of Michigan to monitor organizations based on their political positions. Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel cited the SPLC’s “hate group” list in announcing a “hate-crimes unit” last February. The American Freedom Law Center, a legal group that represents the rights of Jews and Christians, responded with a lawsuit against this “Orwellian” attack on its free speech. Last month, the lawsuit cleared a major hurdle that might reveal the SPLC’s coordination with Nessel to silence the free speech of law-abiding citizens in Michigan.

The SPLC was not always like this, however. In its early years, the group took on noble causes: it forced the Alabama state troopers to admit black members and won a redistricting case that helped black candidates win elections for the first time since Reconstruction; it represented Vietnamese fishermen harassed by the KKK; it saved the Tarboro Three, three black men who were wrongfully convicted of raping a white woman, from death row.

How did this noble civil rights group become ensnared by claims of racial discrimination and sexual harassment? How did the Southern Poverty Law Center rack up a half-a-billion-dollar endowment and open offshore accounts in the Cayman Islands? How did an organization founded to help people become a cudgel to silence conservatives?

My book tells the inside story, and it details how brave Americans wrongly targeted by this corrupt organization are fighting back. Check it out on Amazon today, before the SPLC labels me a “hate group” and Amazon takes it down.

Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.