While America was distracted with impeachment and the 2020 Democrats last week, a monumental lawsuit against Orwellian government surveillance cleared a major hurdle in a Michigan district court. The case, American Freedom Law Center (AFLC) v. Nessel, involves the defense of free speech against government surveillance based on the far-left smear factory the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and its allegedly defamatory “hate group” accusations.
“This is George Orwell, 1984, the thought police, watching over us,” AFLC co-founder and Senior Counsel Robert Muise told PJ Media on Tuesday. Michigan Attorney General “Dana Nessel keeping a watchful eye on all these SPLC-designated ‘hate groups’ has a chilling effect on speech and expressive association.”
Last Wednesday, federal district judge Paul Maloney agreed that the AFLC has a powerful case against Nessel and former Michigan Department of Civil Rights (MDCR) Executive Director Agustin Arbulu. He denied Nessel’s and Arbulu’s motions to dismiss the lawsuit, allowing the case to proceed to discovery. This means AFLC will be able to request all documents showing communication involving Nessel, Arbulu, and the SPLC.
“The SPLC can’t violate our constitutional rights — unless they’re working with the government as a joint actor,” Muise argued. He described Nessel as “a hard-core left-wing progressive. I wouldn’t be surprised to find some connections” between her and the left-wing smear factory. “We intend, through discovery, to disclose any connections that the Michigan attorney general and the SPLC had. If there’s enough joint action so that the SPLC could be considered a state actor, then we will consider adding them to the lawsuit.”
In a statement following Maloney’s order, Muise insisted that this ruling should terrify the SPLC.
“The judge’s powerful and exceedingly favorable decision should send a strong message to the Michigan attorney general that she will not be allowed to weaponize her office to target political opponents. It should also send a strong message to government officials who side with the George Soros-funded and radically partisan SPLC that their day of reckoning is coming. Know this: We will not allow you to trample on our constitutional rights,” he said.
The lawsuit revolves around a “hate-crimes unit” that Nessel and Arbulu launched last February. In the press release for the new unit, both officials effectively endorsed the SPLC’s “hate group” accusation. 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.'”
In his ruling, Maloney laid out AFLC’s three claims against Michigan’s attorney general: that the officials violated the group’s free speech as protected by the First and Fourteenth Amendments; that they violated AFLC’s right to expressive association, which is also protected by those amendments; and that “by targeting AFLC for disfavored treatment based on its political viewpoints, Defendants have deprived AFLC of the equal protection of the law, which is protected by Fourteenth Amendment.”
Maloney also cited AFLC co-founder and Senior Counsel David Yerushalmi, who explained how the SPLC’s “hate group” accusation damaged his organization. “AFLC has to expend resources to combat the label and bolster its reputation. The government’s endorsement of the label makes that job more difficult. Although AFLC was not specifically mentioned in the Press Release, it received media inquiries following the Press Release. The government designation thus injures AFLC both reputationally and financially,” the judge wrote.
While Nessel and Arbulu “cannot control who SPLC labels a hate group,” their action of “referencing SPLC’s reports as the justification for the Policy Directive” places the government’s imprimatur on the SPLC’s “hate group” accusations inside the state of Michigan. “Notably, AFLC contends it does not engage in any criminal activity and further contends it has been placed on SPLC’s list of hate groups because of its constitutionally-protected activities.”
“AFLC has established both a harm to its reputation and a credible fear that it will be targeted by the State of Michigan under the Policy Directive,” Maloney noted. “As pled, AFLC reasonably fears that it will be a target for investigation and surveillance.”
AFLC claims the SPLC accuses them of being a “hate group” due to the organization’s conservative political positions. The far-left group gained credibility by suing the Ku Klux Klan into bankruptcy, but in recent decades it has expanded the monitoring of “hate groups” to include ever more mainstream conservative and Christian organizations.
As documented in my book Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center, a devastating racial discrimination and sexual harassment scandal last March led the SPLC to “clean house at the top,” firing its co-founder and seeing the resignation of many other leading figures. After this scandal, employees came clean about being “part of the con,” exaggerating hate by padding the “hate group” list and “bilking northern liberals” into cutting big checks. The SPLC has millions in offshore bank accounts in the Cayman Islands.
The “hate group” accusations are also politically motivated. The list includes mainstream conservative groups like ACT for America, the Center for Security Policy, the Family Research Council, and Alliance Defending Freedom. Former SPLC spokesman Mark Potok declared that the SPLC’s “aim in life is to destroy these groups, completely destroy them.”
AFLC v. Nessel is not the only lawsuit centered on the SPLC’s “hate group” accusations. The Christian ministry D. James Kennedy Ministries filed a lawsuit against Amazon and the SPLC after it was booted from the AmazonSmile program. A judge granted the SPLC’s motion to dismiss, but DJKM filed an appeal last October.
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. 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. Peter Brimelow, the editor of VDare, sued The New York Times for branding him a “white nationalist” while citing the SPLC.
In the Nelsen case, a judge allowed the plaintiff to enter the discovery process, giving the former heroin addict access to the organization’s documents. The SPLC had falsely claimed that Nelsen “wasn’t convincing anyone” that his drug recovery program was open to men of all races.
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.
AFLC may have the strongest argument because their case involves a state government endorsing the far-left smears, enforcing them with threats of government surveillance. It is indeed Orwellian.
Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.