Metro Weekly

Federal judge upholds right of Southern Poverty Law Center to refer to anti-gay group as “hate group”

"Hate group" label is a form of free speech protected by the First Amendment, judge says

SPLC’s hate map – Photo: Southern Poverty Law Center.

A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit filed by a Florida-based anti-LGBTQ ministry against the Southern Poverty Law Center for designating it as a “hate group.”

The Fort Lauderdale-based D. James Kennedy Ministries, which has also been known as Coral Ridge Ministries and Truth in Action Ministries throughout the years, sued the SPLC after being placed on the latter’s list of alleged hate groups. As part of its mission, the SPLC monitors suspected “hate groups” — which it defines as those organizations that through their activities or statements, attack or malign entire classes of people — and attempts to expose their actions to the broader public.

D. James Kennedy Ministries produces religiously-themed television programs and delivers a daily devotional via email. Its founder, the late Rev. D. James Kennedy, was widely known for his strict evangelical beliefs and socially conservative views opposing abortion, pornography, fetal stem cell research, the teaching of evolution in schools, and same-sex marriage.

As a result of its anti-LGBTQ rhetoric, which, over the years has portrayed the LGBTQ community as perverted and a threat to the nation, in 2013, the SPLC designated the group, then known as Truth in Action, as a hate group.

Currently, the SPLC defines 1,020 different organizations operating within the United States as hate groups. But the moniker has angered many conservative-leaning organizations, particularly those that emphasize socially conservative mores, who have accused the SPLC of using the highly-charged label, which most people associate with groups that actively commit or conspire to commit violent acts, to defame those that disagree with its political beliefs.

Angered at its inclusion on the hate group list, Kennedy Ministries sued the SPLC, alleging that the SPLC had “illegally trafficked in false and misleading descriptions of the services” the ministry offers and attempted to subject Kennedy Ministries to “disgrace, ridicule, odium, and contempt in the estimation of the public.” The 2017 lawsuit also accused the SPLC of violating the Lanham Act, which is intended to protect companies from brand dilution and false advertising, reports the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

In February 2018, the case went before Federal Magistrate Judge David A. Baker, who recommended that the case be dismissed because Kennedy Ministries “failed to allege facts or circumstances that could suggest that the SPLC’s designation…as a hate group was made with actual knowledge of the falsity or in reckless disregard of its truth or falsity.”

Last week, U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson of the Middle District of Alabama agreed with Baker, dismissing the case and finding that the SPLC’s “hate group” designation is protected by the First Amendment. As such, the way for Kennedy Ministries to combat the label is by exercising its own right to free speech. 

“If Coral Ridge disagrees with the ‘hate group’ designation, its hope for a remedy lies in the ‘marketplace of ideas,’ not a defamation action,” Thompson wrote in a 141-page decision.

“The court need not accept Coral Ridge’s blanket contention that a ‘hate group’ is ‘legally and commonly understood as one that engages [in] or advocates crime or violence against others,’ given that it is not only factually unsupported, but also contradicted by the FBI and ADL definitions that Coral Ridge cites, as well as by the court’s common-sense understanding of the words ‘hate’ and ‘group,'” Thompson added.

“The court should not be understood as even suggesting that Coral Ridge is or is not a ‘hate group.’ It has merely held that SPLC’s labeling of the group as such is protected by the First Amendment.”

SPLC headquarters – Photo: Nameofuser25, via Wikimedia.

Kennedy Ministries had also sued Amazon, Inc. for excluding it from the AmazonSmile charitable-giving program because it accepted the SPLC’s designation of Kennedy Ministries as a hate group. That part of the lawsuit was also thrown out by Thompson.

John Rabe, the director of creative production at Kennedy Ministries, told the Sun-Sentinel that the organization’s lawyers are reviewing the decision, which will determine whether it decides to appeal Thompson’s ruling. 

Rabe told the newspaper in an email that the SPLC is trying to “have it both ways, preying upon the public’s notion of a ‘hate group’ externally, while behind the scenes arguing that it doesn’t really mean anything concrete.”

Yet the lawsuit’s dismissal could actually prove to be a financial boon to Kennedy Ministries, which has used Thompsons’s decision to make a fundraising pitch on its website, asking visitors to “Help Stop the Lies!” and fight back against the SPLC’s hate group label.

But the SPLC celebrated Thompson’s decision as a victory for free speech.

“Any organization we list as a hate group is free to disagree with us about our designation, but this ruling underscores that the designation is constitutionally protected speech and not defamatory,” SPLC Interim President Karen Baynes-Dunning said in a statement. “This judgment shows that the First Amendment protects peoples’ opinions and allows them to speak freely without their opinion being stifled.”

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John Riley is the local news reporter for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at jriley@metroweekly.com

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