At the end of 2016, the Chronicle of Philanthropy published an article headlined “Dozens of ‘Hate Groups’ Have Charity Status, Chronicle Study Finds.” The “study” took at face value a list of 900 entities pinned with the “hate” label by a notoriously partisan attack group—the Southern Poverty Law Center. Over the years, numerous investigators have pointed out that most of the scary KKK and Nazi and militia groups that the SPLC insists are lurking under our beds are actually ghost entities, with no employees, no address, hardly any followers, and little or no footprint. But “hate groups” and “extremist organizations” are great copy, especially for fundraising (more on that below). So the SPLC list of stormtroopers-in-our-midst is catnip for journalists looking for dramatic stories.
When the Chronicle’s reporter found that 63 of the groups tarred as dangerous by the SPLC are actually IRS-approved charities, did this spark concerns about the accuracy and fairness of the “haters” list? No, just the opposite. The Chronicle wondered if the IRS “is essentially granting government subsidies to groups holding views that millions of Americans may find abhorrent.”
One month later came another example of journalism built on the tendentious SPLC definitions of who, in America’s roiling democratic give and take, is evil. The Los Angeles Times wrote in a January 2017 story that a donor who owns “the world’s second largest presenter of live music, sports, and entertainment…has donated to a number of anti-LGBTQ groups such as Alliance Defending Freedom, National Christian Foundation, and Family Research Council. A number of these organizations have been listed as ‘extremist groups’ by the Southern Poverty Law Center.”
Let’s start with the Alliance Defending Freedom—which is listed as a “hate group” along with 916 other organizations in the latest SPLC list released on February 15. The ADF has a network of 3,100 American attorneys all around the country who’ve donated more than a million pro bono hours to its work in recent years. The group has had a role in 49 legal victories (plus some losses) at the U.S. Supreme Court. Putting the Alliance Defending Freedom on a list with skinheads and the 130 Ku Klux Klan chapters that the SPLC insists are rampaging across America is like confusing Joe Lieberman with Joseph Stalin.
According to the SPLC, the Family Research Council is also a “hate group.” Most people with less venomous imaginations know it as a prominent Washington, D.C., think tank built up by a former assistant to Ronald Reagan, with a substantial donor-supported budget, a large headquarters in the heart of the nation’s capital, and staffers who regularly air their arguments in national newspapers and television. Yet it endured an armed attack in 2012 by a gunman who told police he felt driven to act after seeing the nonprofit listed as a hate group on the SPLC website. Floyd Corkins shot a security guard while entering the building with a plan for mass murder, which was thwarted only because the guard managed to disarm him.
The third group invoked by the Los Angeles Times, the National Christian Foundation, is actually not on the SPLC list at all (so far!). Yet it was elided into a sloppy association with “extremist groups” in a way that will leave many readers assuming the NCF is up to no good. SPLC’s utter lack of any reasonable criteria for who goes on its list of crazies combines effortlessly with careless reporting, and spreads stigma just by innuendo. Contrary to the dark impression left by the Times phrasing, the NCF is actually one of the largest and most impressive charities in America, having distributed more than $6 billion in gifts in recent years, with a pioneering record of philanthropic effectiveness, and leaders who testify before Congress. But mere proximity to SPLC’s arbitrary “hate” list is enough to tar even the worthiest group.
Want more examples? According to the SPLC, leading social scientist Charles Murray is a “White Nationalist” (more about that in a minute). His colleague at the American Enterprise Institute Ayaan Hirsi Ali, one of the world’s bravest voices for freedom and human dignity through her bestselling books, has been categorized as an “Extremist.” David Horowitz, another bestselling author, is also labeled as an “Extremist.”
Others branded with a scarlet E by the SPLC and many media enablers include former Cincinnati mayor and Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell, think-tank president Frank Gaffney, Cliff Kincaid of the press watchdog Accuracy in Media, former Lieutenant General Jerry Boykin, WorldNetDaily journalist Joseph Farah, Rafael Cruz, a Cuban immigrant and father of a U.S. Senator, legal gadfly Larry Klayman, and immigration restrictionist Dan Stein. Philanthropist Ron Unz, bestselling author Dinesh D’Souza, regular Congressional testifier Mark Krikorian, former Senator and Governor George Allen, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, former Congressman Tom Tancredo, former Congressman and Presidential candidate Ron Paul, and scores of other public-spirited Americans active in national debates have likewise been slurred and defined as beyond the pale by the SPLC.
So have charities like James Kennedy’s Coral Ridge Ministries, the Federation for American Immigration Reform, the Center for Immigration Studies, the World Congress of Families, the National Organization for Marriage, Liberty Counsel, and hundreds of others. It is entirely fair to disagree with any of these charities or individuals—but utterly unfair to insist they are hate criminals. The largest category on the SPLC “haters” list is “anti-government groups.” (663 entries!) This dragnet catches the tea party and patriot organizations that are suspicious of centralized power, which last we checked was a long and honorable American tradition.
What is not part of an honorable American tradition is the course of action prescribed by top SPLC leader Mark Potok: “Sometimes the press will describe us as monitoring hate crimes and so on…. I want to say plainly that our aim in life is to destroy these groups, to completely destroy them.”
Taking people and groups with political views different from your own and lumping them with villains and gangsters is the mark of a bullying organization that aims to intimidate and even criminalize philosophical opponents. Paradoxically, the SPLC’s tactics lead directly to incendiary hate and violence—as was demonstrated by the Family Research Council shooting, and again in March when Charles Murray attempted a presentation at Middlebury College about his bestselling book Coming Apart.
Incited by the SPLC’s slanderous branding of Murray (who married an Asian woman and has two half-Asian daughters) as a “White Nationalist,” protesters blocked him from speaking in a public hall, pulled fire alarms in the building, then attacked the TV studio where he was being interviewed by a professor. He and the professor retreated under the protection of security guards, but thugs in masks repeatedly tried to knock Murray down, and pulled the professor’s hair while shoving her from another direction, sending her to the hospital for neck injuries. When Murray reached a car, the protesters climbed on top of it, rocked it, pounded on windows, and uprooted a stop sign to block the road. After Murray and his academic hosts finally escaped to a nearby inn, the protesters descended on it, forcing them to retreat again.
Who, really, are the violent haters? Why do so many reporters cite the SPLC blacklist as if it were some kind of neutral Consumer Reports guide to what’s intolerable in cultural advocacy? Why do some donors panic when an SPLC blackball is lobbed against them, as the Los Angeles Times attempted in January? And why is a group that foments such reactions taken seriously?
The SPLC was founded as a civil-rights law firm in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1971, and scored some notable victories against the KKK in its early years. But in 1986, when the group broadened its mission to attack a wide range of right-wing organizations, the entire legal staff except founder Morris Dees resigned. Princeton professor Robert George, who remembers the group’s early work but has tussled with it in recent years, calls it “a once noble organization that has fallen into the ignoble role of being an enforcer of ideological orthodoxies.”
There are two chief reasons the SPLC lives on in its current irresponsible form:
1) Its efforts to demonize political opponents make for useful drama if you’re a journalist looking for a social-justice story.
2) Raising the alarm about dangerous bigots on the loose is a potent way to raise money from concerned progressives.
Though it styles itself as a public-interest law firm, the Southern Poverty Law Center does shockingly little litigation, and only small amounts of that on behalf of any aggrieved individuals. Its two largest expenses are propaganda operations: creating its annual lists of “haters” and “extremists,” and running a big effort that pushes “tolerance education” through more than 400,000 public-school teachers. And the single biggest effort undertaken by the SPLC? Fundraising. On the organization’s 2015 IRS 990 form it declared $10 million of direct fundraising expenses, far more than it has ever spent on legal services.
The SPLC is a cash-collecting machine. In 2015 it vacuumed up $50 million in contributions and foundation grants, a tidy addition to its $334 million holdings of cash and securities and its headquarters worth $34 million. “They’ve never spent more than 31 percent of the money they were bringing in on programs, and sometimes they spent as little as 18 percent. Most nonprofits spend about 75 percent on programs,” noted Jim Tharpe, managing editor of the SPLC’s hometown newspaper, the Montgomery Advertiser, in a talk at Harvard’s Nieman Foundation for Journalism. Other reporters who have wised up to the SPLC hustle have noted in exposés how ironic it is that a group proclaiming itself a civil-rights organization has rarely used black attorneys or included any significant number of African Americans on its staff or board.
From the French Revolution to Joseph McCarthy, partisans have over and over used namecalling to sully opponents, end debate, and block necessary cultural reforms. It’s often effective—as their heirs at the SPLC know. There is an American habit, though, of disdain for scaremongering, personal vilification, and attempts to censor discussion. We hope donors will think twice the next time some charity they are supporting or considering gets the side-eye from the Southern Poverty Law Center. —Karl Zinsmeister