Revisiting the SPLC Definition of “Hate Group”

Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel is facing criticism by Democrats after a financial disclosure revealed that he had attended a conference hosted by the Alliance Defending Freedom, which is labeled by the Southern Poverty Law Center as an anti-LGBT hate group. However, while historically the SPLC has fought for civil rights, the increasing number of labeled hate groups by the SPLC and the vagueness of their definition of hate groups has drawn scrutiny.

The Southern Poverty Law Center is a non-profit based in Montgomery, Alabama, which claims to track more than 1,600 extremist groups including the “Ku Klux Klan, the neo-Nazi movement, neo-Confederates, racist skinheads, black separatists, antigovernment militias, Christian Identity adherents and others.” Notably the organization has sued such groups as the United Klans of America and the Aryan Nations and the White Aryan Resistance, “for murders and other violent acts committed by their members or by exposing their activities.” The SPLC has also sponsored the Civil Rights Memorial also located in Alabama.

Most recently,The Appleton Post Crescent and other Gannett Wisconsin newspapers reported that Schimel was the subject of criticism by democrats after an annual financial disclosure revealed he had attended a conference paid for by the Alliance Defending Freedom, a group labeled by the SPLC as an anti-LGBT hate group. According to the article Schimel responded to the criticism on conservative talk radio defending himself “saying in one interview that there is “nothing anti-gay” about ADF and he attended the conference to speak on a panel about states’ rights.”

The SPLC’s “hatemap” currently identifies 954 hate groups in the U.S, which can be sorted by location and even differentiated through categories such as, “anti-immigrant, white nationalist, anti-LGBT, and neo-nazi.” Less clear are categories such as “general hate, hate music, and male supremacy.” The site describes hate groups as having, “beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people, typically for their immutable characteristics,” and that, “hate group activities can include criminal acts, marches, rallies, speeches, meetings, leafleting or publishing.” Also according to the map, Wisconsin is home to eleven of the SPLC designated “hate groups.”

While the SPLC has a legitimate civil rights record to tout, the vagueness of the definition of hate group, and categories such as “general hate” and “hate music,” leads to questions how the SPLC decides what qualifies as a “hate group” today. While there is no question that many groups that the SPLC monitor do qualify as “hate groups” that perpetrate violence, some are more questionable. Beyond labels, Sven Berg of the Idaho Statesman wrote of the immense fundraising capability of the organization:

Co-founder Morris Dees and President Richard Cohen draw salaries of more than $350,000, according to those records, last updated in 2015. At least nine executives earn more than $140,000 a year.

The SPLC’s opulence has drawn criticism for decades. Outsiders and former employees say the practice of putting violent and nonviolent groups on the same list allows Dees and his cohorts to exaggerate the number, power and threat of hate groups. The goal, they say, is to scare donors, especially uninformed liberals, into parting with their money.

CNN also pointed out crticisms of the SPLC group, in an article that included the SPLC’s “hate map”:

Some critics of the SPLC say the group’s activism biases how it categorizes certain groups. For example, there are a number of Christian-based advocacy groups listed because the SPLC says the groups have hateful language and policies regarding the LGBT community. Those groups are very critical of the list arguing that they are faith-based and that the list includes them with neo-Nazi, white supremacy and other groups that may advocate violence. They also say the list compromises their safety, citing an attack by a gunman at the Family Research Council five years ago. The gunman had chosen the organization as his target after finding it listed as an anti-gay group on the website of the Southern Poverty Law Center, according to court documents.

Heidi Beirich, director of the SPLC’s Intelligence Project, told the Idaho Statesmen that hateful ideology can lead to violence:

“People are often critical of us and say, ‘You shouldn’t put nonviolent groups on the list,’” she said. “The problem for us is the ideology of the nonviolent groups often ends up justifying violence, right?

Which means Beirich is acknowledging that SPLC believes language it considers hateful is as dangerous as actual violence and therefore some religious groups should occupy the same list as legitimately violent hate groups, despite providing no evidence that the “ideology of the nonviolent groups often ends up justifying violence.”