'Hate group' listings in legal peril as judge approves defamation suit against one-time KKK fighter

Southern Poverty Law Center unsuccessfully argued that "anti-immigrant" is inherently opinion, not "precise factual term." ADL faces new suit from lawyer behind cartoonist's case.

Published: April 6, 2023 11:42pm

Liberal advocacy groups that publish widely cited lists of purported "hate groups," tarring a diverse spectrum of conservative organizations, are facing defamation claims alleging they knowingly spread falsehoods about those organizations' beliefs and activities.

A federal judge recently refused to dismiss litigation against the 52-year-old Southern Poverty Law Center for designating the Georgia-based Dustin Inman Society, which promotes "legal, sustainable and reduced immigration," as an "anti-immigrant hate group."

The designation came seven years after SPLC told The Associated Press the label would be too strong for what it called a "nativist" group that works "through the political process." That has always been its approach, according to the April 2022 lawsuit by the society, which is named after a teenager killed by an illegal immigrant.

The Alabama-based civil rights organization made its name suing the Ku Klux Klan before turning its scrutiny on socially conservative groups such as the Family Research Council, whose hate-group designation prompted an attempted mass shooting at FRC's Washington D.C. office in 2012. 

While its FRC listing acknowledges that gay rights activist Floyd Lee Corkins cited the designation for his intended rampage, SPLC claims the designation is legitimate because of FRC's "distortion of known facts to demonize gay men as child molesters."

Patriot Voice founder John Sabal, who organized "For God and Country" conferences featuring speakers in former President Trump's orbit including retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn and lawyer Sidney Powell, sent the Anti-Defamation League a draft federal lawsuit on April 1.

He said he plans to seek $10 million in damages for including Sabal in ADL's "Glossary of Extremism" and characterizing him as a "QAnon influencer" and his statements and associations as antisemitic, among other claims. One challenge for Sabal: his three-year-old Gab handle is "QAnon John," widely invoked in media reports.

U.S. District Judge Keith Watkins did not explain the legal basis for denying SPLC's motion to dismiss the Dustin Inman Society's lawsuit, and the docket shows he hasn't held a hearing on the motion. SPLC didn't answer a query on how it plans to proceed.

But Watkins' one-page March 31 order suggests that SPLC's Aug. 29 filing didn't convince him that "anti-immigrant" was simply an opinion protected by the First Amendment rather than a "precise factual term" that can be proven false.

A jury will now delve into the nooks and crannies of the hate-designation process used by SPLC, which has faced recurring scrutiny for three decades, going back to a Pulitzer Prize-finalist series by the Montgomery Advertiser.

The fundraising bonanza SPLC enjoyed early in Trump's presidency renewed mainstream media interest in its practices and culture that were first highlighted in that series.

Politico Magazine in 2017 noted SPLC's $200 million endowment, heavy spending on public relations and designation of Muslim activist Maajid Nawaz as an "anti-Muslim extremist," which later prompted a multimillion-dollar settlement. SPLC also designated the Center for Immigration Studies a hate group in 2016 despite its frequent testimony on Capitol Hill. 

SPLC fired its cofounder Morris Dees in 2019 for unspecified misconduct amid internal allegations of racial and sexual discrimination, and President Richard Cohen and SPLC's legal director subsequently resigned. Dees later said he did not know exactly why he was let go. “It was not my decision, what they did. I wish the center the absolute best. Whatever reasons they had of theirs, I don’t know,” he said.

The Dustin Inman Society's designation coincided with SPLC's registration of lobbyists to fight a "pro-enforcement bill" in the Georgia Legislature, according to the year-old suit. 

It's based on "out of context" statements by founder D.A. King and other statements "impute[d]" to him or the society, none of which "maligned an entire class of people" or even meet the designation's criteria, the suit said. 

King told Just the News that three immigrants serve on the society's board of advisors, as do three "Hispanic American[s]" and three blacks, including its director of communications. The suit claims SPLC knew his sister was a legal immigrant as were some board members.

SPLC holds itself out as "having the ability to conduct in depth investigations of the groups it monitors" and making "factual determinations," going far beyond "the rantings of a single individual," the suit claims. King has lived in "a climate of constant fear" for his safety and that of his family.

Sabal's draft lawsuit against ADL cites allegedly defamatory statements from its website, some of which Just the News also found in congressional testimony

Sabal will sue in 30 days if ADL does not "[i]mmediately retract" the statements and "permanently deactivate all hyperlinks to the publications," post the retraction notice on Twitter, issue a public apology and refrain from publishing "any further false and defamatory statements" about Sabal, according to an accompanying demand letter.

Sabal's lawyer Steven Biss previously filed a defamation suit on behalf of pro-Trump cartoonist Ben Garrison for ADL characterizing as antisemitic Garrison's cartoon depicting left-wing philanthropist George Soros, then-National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster and Gen. David Petraeus as puppets of the "Rothchilds." 

The parties agreed to drop the case and pay their own costs in April 2021, with no known settlement, before any ruling on ADL's motion to dismiss. Neither ADL nor Biss and Madhu Sakharan, the other lawyer on Sabal's lawsuit, responded to queries Thursday.

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