Update on the 60 Separate Defamation Lawsuits Against the SPLC Under Consideration
Leaders of Christian organizations the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) unfairly labels as "hate groups" told PJ Media that a massive legal onslaught is headed toward the SPLC — and it could involve as many as sixty separate lawsuits in different states around the country. Rather than one big defamation lawsuit, the left-wing attack dog will face a scattershot approach.
"What we're considering is not a class-action lawsuit," Mat Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel, a Christian nonprofit branded a "hate group" by the SPLC and currently suing the charity navigation site GuideStar, told PJ Media on Monday. "These are individual lawsuits that we're looking at, not class action."
He explained that the roughly 60 organizations considering the suit intend to "make the SPLC defend itself all over the country."
"The people we're talking to are looking at individual lawsuits — could be up to sixty but definitely quite a number of cases," Staver explained.
In June, the SPLC settled a defamation lawsuit from Maajid Nawaz, a Muslim reformer the group had defamed as an "anti-Muslim extremist." The leftist smear factory paid $3.375 million to Nawaz's anti-terrorism nonprofit, Quilliam International. That case was particularly egregious, as the SPLC called Nawaz an "extremist" for, among other things, going to a strip club on his bachelor party.
After the Nawaz settlement, Staver told PJ Media that "about 60 organizations" "have been considering filing lawsuits against the SPLC, because they have been doing to a lot of organizations exactly what they did to Maajid Nawaz."
PJ Media followed up, asking why the lawsuits have not yet been filed.
Jeremy Tedesco, senior counsel and vice president of U.S. Advocacy and Administration at Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), suggested that the organizations may be waiting for the outcome of other cases currently making their way through the courts. Some of these cases may test whether or not the leftist smear group can get away with defamation by claiming their "hate group" labels are merely a matter of opinion.
"What the SPLC does and what makes them so dangerous is that when they get sued they go to court and say, 'You can't sue us, it's just opinion,'" Tedesco explained. "But they know full well that everybody looks at their hate group list as fact. They treat it as fact, they like having these corporations listen to them." He noted that news organizations and companies like Amazon have "blindly accepted" the SPLC's "hate group" label against ADF. Amazon removed ADF from its Amazon Smile charity program due to the label.
"The SPLC loves it when others treat it like a fact and they treat it like a fact, but when they go to court they say it's just an opinion," the lawyer added.
"There are pending cases against SPLC right now where those questions could be answered," Tedesco said. "It's possible the court could say, 'No matter how much you say this is an opinion, it's a statement of fact.'''
The ADF lawyer also pointed to a letter from the legal offices of Clare Locke, LLP. that lays out the case for Quilliam against the leftist smear group. The letter clearly explains that SPLC's labeling Nawaz an "anti-Muslim extremist" was an act of defamation, and warned that if the SPLC and Media Matters refused to turn in documents regarding Quilliam and Nawaz, they would face "serious penalties."
While the Nawaz lawsuit has been settled, the SPLC is facing two active cases of litigation. Liberty Counsel's suit against GuideStar involves the "hate group" labels, and the Christian nonprofit D. James Kennedy Ministries (DJKM) is suing Amazon.com after the website excluded them from its Amazon Smile program due to the "hate group" label. Tedesco even tied the Prager University lawsuit against Google and YouTube into this set of suits, arguing that it "hits on a lot of similar issues."
The SPLC is attempting to dodge liability by claiming their statements are "opinion." Tedesco suggested that "to some extent, people are going to wait to see how these cases weigh out, but the SPLC puts out a ton of propaganda and they are bound to cross the line again and probably be held accountable again."
The ADF lawyer also echoed the concerns of many in suggesting that judgments against the SPLC could chill free speech. "We respect the right of free speech and we want to have as much breathing room as possible for people to engage in expressing their opinions and ideas, no matter how much we may or may not like those ideas or think they're offensive," Tedesco explained.
However, "you can cross the line and say things that are false and defamatory." If a leftist smear group makes "malicious false attacks that are meant to hurt people, there's an avenue in court to rectify."
Staver, the Liberty Counsel founder, dismissed the idea that a judgment against the leftist smear group would damage free speech. "Defamation's always been the exception to free speech," he told PJ Media. "You have the right to speak but you don't have the right to defame someone. Defamation's never been protected by the First Amendment."
Staver disagreed with Tedesco's explanation for the delay in defamation lawsuits, at least in his case. "We're not waiting on other cases to be resolved, because each case is going to be factually different from the other," he explained. The delay on the lawsuits comes not from waiting for the outcome of other cases, but from the difficulty of coordinating with 60 different organizations, he said.
Staver explained that the PragerU case "doesn't really apply to any litigation that we're doing," because it focuses on discrimination, not defamation. Similarly, "the GuideStar case that we have is a narrow issue," arguing that GuideStar violated the federal Latham Act by putting false misinformation on the same page as they solicited subscriptions to their premium service. Only the DJKM case deals directly with defamation.
Dr. Frank Wright, president and CEO at DJKM, supported strategies "against the SPLC's false and defamatory practice of placing groups on their so-called hate map for simply subscribing to the teaching of the historic Christian faith." Indeed, in the case of the small pro-family nonprofit the Ruth Institute, the SPLC directly quoted the Catechism of the Catholic Church in branding it a "hate group."
Worse, the "hate group" label directly inspired a terrorist attack against the Family Research Council (FRC) in 2012, a terrorist used the "hate map" to find the group and show up with a semi-automatic pistol and a bag full of Chick-Fil-A chicken sandwiches, to place at the heads of the people he would massacre.
Echoing Staver, Wright explained the lawsuit delay. "What looks like hesitancy from afar may simply reflect the complexity of getting 60 different groups to coordinate their legal decision-making," he told PJ Media.
Defamation law created a large hurdle to cross, but Wright and Staver were confident they would be able to meet the standard.
"Our primary complaint against the SPLC is defamation. Current case law makes it difficult to prevail in such cases unless you can prove actual malice," Wright explained. "Yet, since an SPLC official is on record saying their goal is to 'destroy' groups like ours, we think we can meet that standard."
Indeed, SPLC spokesman Mark Potok explained in 2007, "Sometimes the press will describe us as monitoring hate groups, I want to say plainly that our aim in life is to destroy these groups, completely destroy them." He doubled down in 2008, "We're not trying to change anybody's mind. We're trying to wreck the groups. We're trying to destroy them. Not to send them to prison unfairly or to take their free speech rights away, but as a political matter to destroy them."
Staver agreed that these remarks make a defamation case against the SPLC especially powerful.
As for the DJKM suit against Amazon, which even Staver admitted was similar to the pending defamation cases that may hit the left-wing smear group across the country, Wright said he was confident of success.
"Our primary complaint against Amazon is discrimination," he told PJ Media. "Yet, astonishingly, Amazon has argued that they are not subject to the non-discrimination provisions of the Civil Rights Act. In effect they have said they can discriminate against anyone they choose. For example, if Amazon chose not to serve African Americans for any reason, they believe they have the right to do so."
"This notion seems so patently unjust that we fully expect to prevail," Wright said.
Even if Tedesco is correct that many groups are holding off on lawsuits until the DJKM case against Amazon is completed, that should not give the SPLC hope that it will get off the hook for its long history of defamation. The lawsuits may be long in coming, but Staver, Tedesco, and Wright all agreed they are coming.
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