Last Thursday, the Judeo-Christian law firm American Freedom Law Center (AFLC) sued Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel and Michigan Department of Civil Rights (MDCR) Executive Director Agustin Arbulu for using the arm of the state to quash their First Amendment rights. Nessel and Arbulu had referenced the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) “hate group” labels in launching a new hate-crimes unit “to fight against hate crimes and the many hate groups … in our state.”
“It’s one thing for the Southern Poverty Law Center, which is a private organization, to engage in political propaganda and political hyperbole,” Robert Muise, co-founder and senior counsel of AFLC, told PJ Media on Monday. He said it’s a violation of the Constitution “when you have the attorney general who’s relying on that political propaganda to investigate and target us with the power of the state.”
“You now have the government giving its endorsement to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s nonsense — that now triggers our constitutional protections,” Muise insisted.
He summarized the new policy in Michigan succinctly: “‘We’re going to keep files on you.’ It’s Orwellian. It’s Big Brother. It’s the thought police.”
The AFLC lawsuit brings three claims against Nessel and Arbulu: violation of free speech rights under the First Amendment; violation of expressive association rights under the First Amendment; and violation of equal protection as guaranteed under the Fourteenth Amendment.
In announcing the new “hate-crimes unit,” both Nessel and Arbulu effectively endorsed the SPLC’s “hate group” labels. Arbulu went so far as to name a geographic region of the state — a region that includes AFLC’s headquarters. “Particularly of concern, over one half [sic] of the identified groups are located east of US-23 between Flint and Ann Arbor,” the MDCR director said.
“According to the SPLC report relied upon by Defendants, Plaintiff is identified as a ‘hate’ group because it is allegedly ‘anti-Muslim,’ and according to SPLC’s ‘Hate Map,’ Plaintiff is located in the Ann Arbor area,” the lawsuit claims. “Consequently, Plaintiff is one of the very groups that Defendants referred to in their public announcement as an ‘extremist and hate organization in Michigan.'”
The lawsuit alleges that Nessel and Arbulu intend to “chill … First Amendment freedoms and [tarnish] Plaintiff’s public reputation.” It also claims that the policy intends “to create in the collective mind of the public that organizations designated by SPLC as ‘hate’ groups are criminal organizations rather than legitimate charitable organizations.”
“By branding political opponents as ‘hate groups,’ Defendants seek to officially censor, correct, and/or condemn certain political views and ideas,” the lawsuit claims. “The challenged policy is a tool of intimidation for state government officials. It provides a basis for these officials to abuse their positions of power by seeking to stifle political opinion and opposition.”
AFLC also cites the fact that Amazon has removed its organization from the charitable donation program Amazon Smile, due to the SPLC “hate group” label. Other non-profit groups like Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) and D. James Kennedy Ministries have also been booted from the program.
The organization rejects the “hate group” label as “grotesque and absurd on its face,” arguing that the Michigan officials’ “reliance on SPLC’s designations is reckless in the extreme, harms AFLC’s public reputation, and is an unconstitutional dereliction of Defendants’ sworn duty to uphold the United States and Michigan Constitutions and to provide equal justice under the law to all persons and organizations regardless of their political views.”
The lawsuit cites many reasons AFLC is not a hate group, including the list of “well-respected individuals” on its advisory board. That board boasts a Notre Dame law professor; a former assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration; former U.S. attorney and National Review author Andrew McCarthy; former U.S. Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey; a former inspector general at the Department of Defense; and a former director at the CIA.
AFLC’s mission is “to fight for faith and freedom through litigation, education, and public policy programs.” The nonprofit public interest law firm principally defends the First Amendment rights of conservative Christians and Jews.
AFLC has won many legal victories. In 2015, it defended the rights of Christians attacked by a Muslim mob while demonstrating at an Arab festival in Dearborn. AFLC has defended a private nativity scene displayed in a public forum, quashed overbroad subpoenas issued against a private citizen by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, and defended free speech that government officials deemed critical of Islam.
AFLC also defended Priests for Life in the Supreme Court case Zubik v. Burwell (2016), and filed an amicus curiae brief in support of Trump’s so-called “travel ban.” The SPLC cited this defense of the president’s executive power as one of the reasons it considers AFLC a “hate group.” Indeed, the far-left smear group referenced this as one of the “Key Moments” of “hate” in 2018.
The SPLC cannot point out one example of any criminal activity from AFLC, the lawsuit explains. “Plaintiff is not a criminal organization—it is a lawful, conservative, public interest law firm that defends conservative Christians and Jews. SPLC and Defendants object to Plaintiff exercising its First Amendment rights because SPLC and Defendants disagree with Plaintiff’s political viewpoints and the political viewpoints of those it defends in court.”
Robert Muise, AFLC’s co-founder, told PJ Media the SPLC personally attacked him. “I was on active duty in the Marine Corps for 13 years as an officer. I’m a father of 12 and a devout Catholic. They had me listed as an anti-Semite when my co-founder is a yarmulke-wearing Orthodox Jew!”
After AFLC filed the lawsuit, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel responded on Facebook by doubling down on chilling the organization’s speech.
“Only in Trump’s America do you get sued for pledging to prosecute hate crimes and pursue organizations that engage in illegal conduct against minority communities,” Nessel wrote, refusing to explain how AFLC had engaged in any “illegal conduct.” She added, “I will never back down on my commitment to protect the safety of all Michiganders. Bring it.”
Only in Trump’s America do you get sued for pledging to prosecute hate crimes and pursue organizations that engage in…
“She’s telling us to bring it. She’s here describing us as a ‘hate’ organization,” Muise told PJ Media. “If anything, attorneys general are supposed to be unbiased, objective. She is weaponizing the attorney general’s office here in Michigan.”
He warned that the Left is engaging in “evil” efforts of “intimidation” to “marginalize their political opponents.”
“The Democratic Party is going that direction. This socialist Left-wing is tyrannical,” Muise said.
Mat Staver, founder and chairman of the Christian law firm Liberty Counsel, another law firm falsely labeled a “hate group” by the SPLC, praised AFLC’s challenge as “a great lawsuit.”
“I think that for a state institution to threaten investigations against any organization is a direct chill on their free speech,” Staver told PJ Media. “They want to discourage conservative groups and a certain viewpoint on speech.”
“They can’t threaten investigations based on the content or expressing a viewpoint, because that violates the core of the First Amendment,” he added. “The fact that they’re using a discredited organization like the SPLC is even more outrageous.”
“To use a liberal organization against a conservative organization and then threaten sanctions and investigation against the conservative organization … that violates the First Amendment,” he said. “Much more is required for a state agency to threaten or intimidate or investigate an organization than simply unfounded fear based on some other organization’s classification.”
Staver predicted that more and more lawsuits will start popping up against the SPLC and organizations and governments that rely on the SPLC’s “hate group” labels. “They’re going to continue to grow,” he said.
Chris Gacek, senior fellow for regulatory affairs at the Family Research Council (FRC), another organization falsely branded a “hate group” by the SPLC, also praised the lawsuit. FRC faced a terrorist attack in 2012 thanks to the SPLC’s “hate map.”
“The AFLC correctly objects to a new state policy announced by Nessel and Arbulu that their offices would begin investigations of all ‘hate’ groups in Michigan,” Gacek said. “The list of hate groups was taken from the Southern Poverty Law Center – a hyper-partisan, left-wing activist group. It doesn’t seem that any credible evidence of criminal activity had been presented that would justify such an investigation.”
“One of Joseph Stalin’s thugs, Lavrentiy Beria, developed a new way of conducting criminal investigations. He famously said, ‘Show me the man and I’ll find you the crime.’ This methodology seems to have found its way to East Lansing, Michigan. Sadly for Nessel and Arbulu, it is not the way we do things in America,” the FRC spokesman added.
“Family Research Council strongly supports the AFLC’s effort in this litigation and hopes that the federal court will swiftly grant the relief sought including an injunction of these wildly unconstitutional state activities,” Gacek said. The State of Michigan has no business relying on the SPLC for anything. Recently, even journalists on the left have questioned the SPLC’s overall probity and accuracy making its hate list determinations.”
He concluded, “Any fair-minded Michigan citizen will be shocked to learn about the SPLC and the reliance being placed on it by law enforcement agencies.”
The MDCR did not respond to PJ Media’s request for comment by press time.
Follow Tyler O’Neil, the author of this article, on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.