Commentary

5 Ways Southern Poverty Law Center and Its ‘Hate Map’ Do More Harm Than Good

Jay Hobbs
By Jay Hobbs | May 9, 2018 | 3:57 PM EDT

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Midway through April, online giant Amazon became the latest corporate player to silence conservative voices, quietly nixing Supreme Court advocate Alliance Defending Freedom from its AmazonSmile program.

The program allows individual shoppers to designate 0.5 percent of their purchase toward the charity of their choice via the AmazonSmile Foundation. But while the decision to remove the eligibility of ADF rested with Amazon, it’s the root cause underlying the online shopping giant’s move that is truly troubling.

On its page explaining AmazonSmile, the parent company states that it allows (or in this case, disallows) participating organizations based in large part on the discredited Southern Poverty Law Center, which is best known for its “Hate Map”—an annually released listing of close to 1,000 groups it deems a threat to society.

Entries on the “Hate Map” range widely—to say the least. The list gains credibility by including actual chapters of the KKK, avowed white and black nationalists, and Holocaust deniers, but it jumps the shark in a big way by including many faith-based groups that advocate widely held religious beliefs about marriage and sexuality.

This flattening of all dissenting views into “hate”—on the same level as the KKK—does a serious disservice to dialogue between everyday Americans who may disagree with friends and neighbors on heated issues, but at the end of the day, are glad to stay friends and neighbors.

As it peddles panic, division, and paranoia, here are five ways the SPLC’s efforts do more harm than good:

1.      SPLC’s “Hate Map” seems to have provoked actual violence.

Storming the Washington, D.C., headquarters of the Family Research Council in August 2012, a gunman opened fire and wounded an unarmed security guard before the injured guard wrestled him down.

The gunman—who was ultimately sentenced to 25 years to life—came armed with 50 rounds of 9-mm ammunition and 15 Chick-fil-A sandwiches, planning to “kill as many people” as he could before smearing the victims’ faces with the sandwiches.

While the SPLC obviously didn’t dictate the would-be killer’s actions and motives, it’s worth pointing out that he told investigators he’d leaned on the SPLC and its “Hate Map” to plan his assault, choosing the Family Research Council because it appeared on the SPLC’s list.

2.      SPLC’s stated goal is to “destroy” anyone it disagrees with.

Despite its attempt to position itself as a “watchdog” to help journalists and companies like Amazon identify hateful and dangerous groups on par with the KKK, the SPLC’s leadership has been far bolder about its operative goals.

The goal of the SPLC, according to long-time SPLC spokesman Mark Potok, is to publicly ruin any group it places on its list—which is rather alarming considering the vast swath of groups the SPLC arbitrarily deems “hateful.”

“Sometimes the press will describe us as monitoring hate groups,” Potok said in 2007. “I want to say plainly that our aim in life is to destroy these groups, completely destroy them.”

A year later, Potok doubled down on that admission.

“We’re not trying to change anybody’s mind,” Potok said. “We’re trying to wreck the groups. We’re trying to destroy them.”

 

3.      The SPLC’s overwrought rhetoric obscures actual threats. 

It bears repeating that the SPLC condemns the KKK and ordinary Christian groups with equal vigor, but its suspect credibility comes into greater focus in its reckless inclusion of cities and towns on its “Hate Map.”

In a piece at Politico this February, Tony Rehagen tells the story of Gurnee, Illinois, which found itself on the SPLC’s “Hate Map” simply because an anonymous user mentioned that the town appeared in the comments section of a shady website.

As Rehagen details, the town’s mayor and city council members had to spend months trying to clear their town’s name and convince the SPLC to remove the town from the “Hate Map.” Gurnee is not alone, Rehagen says, as towns in Colorado, Iowa, Indiana, and more have been shocked to find themselves on the “Hate Map” in recent years.

While lumping in towns and political opponents with militant groups to run up the “Hate Map” total may look good on a fundraising letter (see below), it makes it just about impossible to take the list, or its originator, seriously.

4.      SPLC’s business model is selling fear and hate in order to stockpile cash. And lots of it.

As ADF and others were realizing they’d been removed from AmazonSmile based on their SPLC “Hate Map” listing, the SPLC’s 2017 tax information went public, showing the group ended last year with $477 million in assets.

Founded by Morris Dees, a political operative and member of the Direct Marketing Association’s Hall of Fame, the SPLC’s relationship to poverty is tenuous at best. While the group is heavy on cash—much of it reportedly held in offshore accounts—it produces little other than the “Hate Map” from its multi-million dollar headquarters in Montgomery, Alabama.

Dubbed “The Poverty Palace,” the six-story edifice is an enduring symbol of the group’s goal to convert guilt, fear, and opposition into a pile of money.

5.      The SPLC’s labeling comes at the expense of civil discourse.

In the week since it became public that Amazon had acquiesced to the SPLC’s tagging of ADF, the most interesting voice to come to the legal advocacy group’s defense has been Mikey Weinstein, founder and president of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation.

In a two-page open letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos released Monday, Weinstein said that even though he and his group “disagree with ADF’s positions on almost everything in law and policy,” the SPLC had made a mistake in branding ADF as a hate group.

“For years we’ve crossed swords [with ADF] and fought for our respective opposing views,” Weinstein wrote. “But it is one thing to fight for ideals, and it’s another to marginalize and suppress others—even those you vehemently disagree with. And that is what’s happening when ADF is branded a ‘hate’ group and thrown out of the Amazon Smile program.”

In his letter, Weinstein noted that he’d experienced “principled humanity” in his personal interactions with ADF. Weinstein “steadfastly affirm[ed]” ADF staff’s “integrity, compassion, character, empathy, honor, and concern for their fellow humans.”

“I consider them dear friends,” he continued, “and I assure you that I don’t use that term lightly.”

Weinstein then urged Bezos to reconsider his company’s decision to act on the SPLC’s designation.

“The American way is not to impose ‘truth’ by power—be it economic or government—but by free speech, robust debate, and conflict in the courts,” Weinstein wrote. “Though I and MRFF fervently disagree 100% with ADF’s views, I will stand up here and now and respect their fight for conscience, for their understanding of human life, and their commitment to their conception of religious freedom.”

It remains to be seen if Bezos and Amazon will reconsider their move, but Weinstein’s word is right on the money and especially timely in a cultural moment too often defined by name-calling, shouting, and, yes, hate.

Jay Hobbs is deputy director of media communications for Alliance Defending Freedom.

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