In a House of Representatives committee hearing on Thursday, Democrats cited the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) in calling on the IRS to remove tax-exempt status from “hate groups.” Only one Democrat referenced the SPLC by name, but many cited the SPLC secondhand in warning that more than 60 tax-exempt non-profit groups registered with the IRS are “hate groups.” Earlier this year, the SPLC cleaned out its leadership amid scandal and its politically biased “hate group” list was outed as a fundraising tool.
“The Southern Poverty Law Center has a list of over 60 hate groups that have tax-exempt status,” Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.) said during the House Ways & Means Committee hearing on “How the Tax Code Subsidizes Hate.” The hearing involved testimony from Pulse Nightclub shooting survivor Brandon Wolf; Jeff Binkley, father of Maura Binkley, who was killed by an incel (involuntary celibate) shooter; YWCA El Paso CEO Sylvia Acosta; tax code lawyer Marcus Owens; and UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh.
Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-N.Y.) claimed that “60 groups have been identified by philanthropy organizations as being hate groups.”
Rep. Suzan DelBene (D-Wash.) cited an article from The Chronicle of Philanthropy reporting that “the federal government has granted tax-exempt status to more than 60 controversial nonprofits branded by critics as ‘hate groups.'” The Chronicle reported that 55 of the organizations the SPLC accuses of being “hate groups” are registered as 501(c)(3) charities and eight are 501(c)(4) “social welfare” groups.
To its credit, The Chronicle rightly noted that many organizations have disputed the “hate group” accusation, which places mainstream conservative and Christian organizations on a list with Ku Klux Klan-affiliated groups. Since the SPLC earned its reputation by bankrupting the KKK, legal experts have argued that “The SPLC’s ‘hate group’ accusation is a financial and reputational death sentence, effectively equating organizations to the KKK.”
In the wake of a scandal involving claims of racial discrimination and sexual harassment that saw the SPLC fire its co-founder and lose its president and legal director, a former SPLC employee outed the “hate-group list” as a “masterstroke of [the founder]’s marketing talents.” This seemed to confirm claims that the hate group list is a cynical fundraising scheme, rather than a legitimate report.
The “hate group” accusation also gives the SPLC a way to destroy its political enemies. Former SPLC spokesman Mark Potok also revealed an animus against the organizations on the list. He said the SPLC’s “aim in life” is to “destroy these groups.”
Rep. Darin LaHood (R-Ill.) rightly chastised Chu for citing the SPLC.
“I also strongly condemn all organizations that encourage hate, violence, and incitement to violence,” LaHood said, joining others in his commitment “to make sure that purely violent organizations do not benefit from tax-exempt status.”
Yet he also warned that “the IRS should not be used as a political tool to discriminate against organizations that differ in viewpoints. … We cannot use political disagreement as a metric to define hate speech or a hate group. This type of labeling can and has led to violent acts.”
“I know my colleague just referenced the Southern Poverty Law Center,” LaHood said. “In 2012, an armed man named Floyd Lee Corkins walked into the Family Research Council Washington headquarters with the intent to shoot and kill as many of its employees as possible. He was apprehended, but not before wounding the non-profit’s business manager. Mr. Corkins later told the FBI that he had seen the nonprofit group listed as an anti-gay hate group on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s website.”
LaHood did not call for the IRS to revoke the SPLC’s non-profit status (although some, notably Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), have called for an investigation, not because the SPLC is liberal but because it only targets Republicans for its accusations of “hate.”). He merely joined other Republicans in warning that government attempts to crack down on “hate” could discriminate against lawful organizations based on their political viewpoints.
Indeed, some prominent liberals who vehemently disagree with Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), which the SPLC accuses of being a “hate group,” have nonetheless defended ADF from this smear. ADF is among the more than 60 tax-exempt “hate groups” that attracted the Democrats’ ire.
It just so happens that at least one of the organizations the SPLC attacks as a “hate group” — the neo-Nazi National Policy Institute — may deserve to lose its tax-exempt status for other reasons mentioned in the hearing. Yet the House Ways & Means Committee also called out the American Family Association (AFA) on Twitter, suggesting the Democrat-led committee supports the SPLC smear against this group and wants AFA to lose its tax-exempt status.
(4/5): The American Family Association, which has claimed: pic.twitter.com/cFxzQN7zR3
— Ways & Means Committee (@WaysMeansCmte) September 19, 2019
Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas) mentioned the IRS targeting of conservative groups affiliated with the tea party movement under former President Barack Obama. In October 2017, the DOJ settled a class-action lawsuit regarding IRS targeting for $3.5 million for “abuse of power.” If the IRS were to adopt the SPLC’s far-left “hate group” accusations, it would supercharge the government targeting of conservative groups.
Wolf, the Pulse shooting survivor, insisted that organizations have free speech but they do not have the right to effective subsidies from the federal government. Volokh brilliantly explained why the push to strip tax-exempt status from “hate groups” is a dangerous idea, however.
“The Tax Code indeed subsidizes hate, just as it subsidizes Socialism, Satanism, and a wide variety of dangerous and offensive ideas. Under the First Amendment, tax exemptions have to be distributed without discrimination based on viewpoint; that means that evil views have to be treated the same way as good views,” the law professor explained.
“The Supreme Court has repeatedly made clear that tax exemptions can’t be denied based on the viewpoint that a group communicates,” Volokh said. He referenced Speiser v. Randall (1958), in which the Supreme Court upheld a property tax exemption to people and organizations that advocated the overthrow of the U.S. government.
While Americans should debate whether or not tax exemptions should be allowed, government cannot discriminate against organizations that apply for those exemptions due to their viewpoint. One the government “chooses to provide such a subsidy— including through ‘tax deductions for contributions’—it must abide by ‘the requirement of viewpoint neutrality in the Government’s provision of financial benefits.'”
For this reason, the Supreme Court has made clear “that excluding speech that manifests or promotes ‘hate’ is forbidden viewpoint discrimination,” Volokh explained, citing Matal v. Tam (2017).
“Of course, many Americans are understandably upset that their tax money flows— whether through tax exemptions or through university student group funding policies or subsidies for mailing newspapers or books—to views that they believe (perhaps quite correctly) to be evil. Many religious people are understandably upset when they have to subsidize blasphemy. Many pro-life advocates are understandably upset when they have to subsidize pro-choice groups, and vice versa,” he added. “But giving the government the power to discriminate against some such viewpoints necessarily means the government will also have the power to discriminate against others.”
“Would we feel comfortable giving this power to the Trump administration? If we would, would we feel comfortable giving it to a possible Sanders administration? I doubt there are many people who would trust both those administrations, and this distrust of government power is one reason the First Amendment exists,” Volokh concluded.
Of course, the IRS should not provide tax exemption for organizations that incite violence against individuals or groups of people. Such organizations are already illegal. But attempts to get the IRS to blacklist “hate groups” would have devastating consequences, even without the SPLC’s bias involved.
Follow Tyler O’Neil, the author of this article, on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.