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The SPLC Is in Serious Legal Jeopardy for Defamation Regarding Its 'Hate Group' Labels

On Monday, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) settled a defamation suit filed by Muslim reformer Maajid Nawaz, whom the SPLC maligned as an "anti-Muslim extremist." On Tuesday, PJ Media reported that no fewer than 60 organizations are considering similar lawsuits against the SPLC. The organization is still facing a lawsuit from D. James Kennedy Ministries (DJKM), a Christian organization falsely labeled a "hate group."

The SPLC is in serious legal jeopardy in the DJKM case at least, because its "hate group" labels arguably fit all the requirements for defamation. Most damningly, the SPLC attacked DJKM years before publicly admitting that "our aim in life is to destroy these groups."

The SPLC began as a civil rights organization, bringing a lawsuit against the Ku Klux Klan. In recent decades, the organization has begun marking mainstream organizations as "hate groups" on par with the KKK. Last year, 47 nonprofit leaders denounced the SPLC's "hate list" in an open letter to the media. The SPLC has admitted that its "hate group" list is based on "opinion."

Tragically, the "hate group" list — and a corresponding "hate map" — inspired a terrorist attack in Washington, D.C. in 2012.

John Rabe, a spokesman for DJKM, put his central complaint against the SPLC in a clear, pithy statement: "Stop lumping in Christians and conservatives with neo-Nazis and skin heads. Or if you’re going to do it, let everyone know you are just a far-left advocacy group and nothing more," he said.

"Defamation of character" is not a crime, but it is a "tort," a civil wrong for which a defamed person can sue the defamer for damages. Defamation law aims to balance the competing interests of free speech and public reputation. It is fundamentally important that defamation be limited so that political and social disagreement is fostered, not discouraged.

Defamation plaintiffs must prove 4 things to receive damages. They must convince a court that the statement is "published" (seen by a third party), objectively false, "injurious" (proving that the plaintiff's reputation was hurt and they lost tangible good things), and made in a context that is "unprivileged."

This final requirement is the most complicated. In many circumstances, published, false, injurious statements are not actionable on defamation grounds. Witnesses who testify falsely in court cannot be sued for defamation, and lawmakers are not liable for statements made in a legislative chamber or in official materials.

The rules also vary for public officials. Since a free press and free speech involve the ability to criticize officials, a politician (or celebrity) must prove one further element for defamation — they must demonstrate that the defendant acted with "actual malice."