In 2017, the Christian ministry D. James Kennedy Ministries (DJKM) filed a defamation and discrimination lawsuit against the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and Amazon after Amazon booted DJKM from its charity program (Amazon Smile) due to the SPLC accusation that the ministry is a “hate group.” Last month, an Alabama district court dismissed the suit, but on Tuesday DJKM announced it would appeal the decision, breathing new life into a key legal battle.
The ministry announced it has filed a notice of appeal with the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.
DJKM noted that U.S. District Judge Myron H. Thompson accepted the SPLC’s argument that the “hate group” accusation is protected by the First Amendment “because it is essentially meaningless and cannot be proved right or wrong.”
Specifically, the judge wrote that DJKM “cannot prove the falsity of the ‘hate group’ designation…Logically speaking, a plaintiff cannot prove what is not provable.” He argued that definitions of the term “hate group” conflicted too much for there to be a clear standard of meaning.
“While the judge adopts wholesale the SPLC’s argument that the term ‘hate group’ means nothing concrete and thus cannot be defamatory, the news media, lawmakers, and Amazon, among others, have taken it as gospel,” Frank Wright, president and CEO of DJKM, said in a statement. “The SPLC plays a disingenuous game, counting on a public connotation of ‘hate groups’ that brings to mind the KKK and neo-Nazis, while behind the scenes arguing that the term has no real meaning.”
Indeed, Judge Thompson argued that DJKM should not bring a court action but instead challenge the SPLC accusation in the court of public opinion — an argument that seems to overlook the SPLC’s privileged position and history.
Founded by prolific fundraiser Morris Dees, the SPLC gained its reputation by bankrupting the Ku Klux Klan in court. Its “hate group” accusations grew out of its work monitoring the KKK, and its list of “hate groups” includes a KKK section. When the SPLC accuses an organization of being a “hate group,” it places that organization on a list that includes KKK groups — and targets that organization with an apparatus set up to destroy the KKK.
Corporations, Big Tech companies, the media, police, and the federal government have all used the SPLC as a resource, giving them a privileged position in the court of public opinion — a position the organization arguably does not deserve.
The SPLC cleaned house at the top amid a devastating sexual harassment and racial discrimination scandal this past March. After that scandal, former employees spoke out about being “part of the con,” as the SPLC used its “hate group” accusations for fundraising. Many of the groups on the list are laughable — a blog run by one person and with no impact, a local store run by a Confederate sympathizer. It seems extremely unlikely the SPLC does not know this effort is deceptive.
Furthermore, former SPLC spokesman Mark Potok declared that the SPLC’s “aim in life is to destroy these groups, completely destroy them.” Indeed, the “hate group” accusations follow a clear liberal bias. The “hate” monitor has not condemned antifa or Students for Justice in Palestine, a group that enflames anti-Semitic harassment on college campuses. The SPLC routinely publishes reports about “Hate on the Right” or “Hate in the White House.”
Just last month, House Democrats held a hearing calling for the IRS to remove the tax-exempt status of organizations the SPLC accuses of being “hate groups.”
In 2012, a shooter broke into the Family Research Council (FRC), aiming to kill everyone in the building. He later told the FBI he targeted the organization because the SPLC had accused it of being an “anti-LGBT hate group.”
While defamation is a high legal bar, at least one defamation lawsuit against the SPLC has succeeded. The far-left group accused Maajid Nawaz, an anti-terror Muslim reformer, of being an “anti-Muslim extremist.” Nawaz sued and the SPLC settled, offering a very public apology and paying $3.375 million to his nonprofit.
Megan Meier, a partner at Claire Locke, the law firm that represented Nawaz, told PJ Media that “the SPLC’s ‘hate group’ accusation is a financial and reputational death sentence, effectively equating organizations to the KKK. No right-thinking person wants to be associated with the KKK, so the SPLC’s ‘hate group’ accusation is incredibly effective at shaming organizations and causing them to be shunned by donors, fundraising platforms, service providers, the media, and others. Shaming and shunning are hallmarks of what makes a statement ‘defamatory’ under the common law.”
Meier admitted that the SPLC’s free speech defenses have proven effective at times. “The SPLC has had some success in arguing that its ‘hate group’ accusation is protected by the First Amendment. It remains to be seen whether the SPLC will ultimately win the day on that question or whether organizations that have been damaged by false accusations will be given their day in court,” she told PJ Media.
Wright, the DKJM president, noted that the SPLC’s legal defense strongly undercuts the public credibility of its “hate group” accusations.
“I hope that the media and the public will note well that the SPLC’s defense rests upon the notion that their ‘hate map’ is entirely arbitrary and artificial, and that it cannot be proved whether any group belongs on it or not,” he said.
“The SPLC has admitted to a federal judge that their fear-mongering is based on nothing provable or concrete,” Wright added. “Sadly, Judge Thompson has decided to let that continue. But D. James Kennedy Ministries will persevere in pressing, in the U.S. Court of Appeals, this legal battle on behalf of all the Bible-believing Christian ministries falsely labeled ‘hate groups’ by the duplicitous SPLC.”
In addition to DJKM and Nawaz, the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes, Baltimore lawyer Glen Keith Allen, and former heroin addict Craig Nelsen have sued the SPLC for defamation and various other claims. The CIS lawsuit was struck down because it attempted to shoehorn a defamation claim into racketeering, but it will likely be re-filed.
Mat Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel, a Christian nonprofit branded a “hate group” by the SPLC, told PJ Media that more than 60 organizations are considering their own lawsuits against the SPLC.
In the Nelsen case, a judge allowed the plaintiff to enter the discovery process, giving the former heroin addict access to SPLC documents. The SPLC had falsely claimed that Nelsen “wasn’t convincing anyone” that his drug recovery program was open to men of all races.
When DJKM files its appeal, it will have to bolster certain arguments about the SPLC’s meaning of the term “hate group,” using the SPLC’s history against the KKK. Ironically, Judge Thompson ruled that “unlike the accusation of a crime, the accusation of being a hate group does not derive its meaning from ‘commonly understood’ social norms.” The SPLC’s history and broad cultural and political impact suggest otherwise — namely that opposing groups like the KKK is a “commonly understood social norm” such that a “hate group” accusation is a “reputational death sentence.”
Most likely, DJKM will have to focus on the many more concrete accusations SPLC has made against them in the context of the “hate group” accusation. Nawaz, for instance, did not just complain about the “anti-Muslim extremist” label. His demand letter listed specific false statements the SPLC made about him, bolstering the case that the “anti-Muslim extremist” label and the other claims associated with it constituted clear defamation.
DJKM has a long road ahead, but the organization can prevail. The right to free speech does not include defamation of character.
Follow Tyler O’Neil, the author of this article, on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.