By William Jacobson
As SPLC’s political “hate” and “extremist” lists are used to damage internet freedom and free speech.
I’ve been covering the manipulative “hate” lists put out by the Southern Poverty Law Center for almost eight years, long before it was fashionable to do so.
I took an interest in it because as a past contributor to SPLC, I was deeply offended by the use of these lists to target political opponents who posed no threat of violence. SPLC’s tactics are the exact opposite of what I was taught, that the best anecdote to offensive speech is more speech, not less.
My first post about SPLC was on October 21, 2009, when Mark Potok, head of SPLC’s Hatewatch project, smeared prominent black female Vanderbilt law professor Carol Swain as an “apologist for white supremacists.” The accusation was based upon a complete misreading of her review of a movie involving racially inflammatory rhetoric. It was a vicious attack, taken apart by James Taranto in The Wall Street Journal.
I wrote in that first 2009 post:
For a long time, my best estimate is that it was well over a decade, I regularly donated to the SPLC. I stopped those donations long ago, as the SPLC drifted from its original mission into left-wing politics. Take a look at the Blogroll at SPLC’s Hatewatch blog; it is populated almost exclusively with left-wing bloggers and George Soros-related left-wing organizations.
Nowadays, if I see or hear of Mark Potok, the spokesman for the SPLC, it almost always is in the context of Potok trying to paint conservative groups with the white supremacist brush in order to help Democratic Party politics. Potok and others at the SLPC have politicized the SPLC needlessly, and blurred the line between those who believe in a limited role for government in the interest of personal and constitutional freedoms, and the very small fringe who espouse racist ideology….
he SPLC quickly is becoming a caricature of an organizations which hides behind its past honorable accomplishments in order to shield its present politically-motivated use of the race card. Becoming the organizational equivalent of Jesse Jackson is not something to which the SPLC should aspire.
And so it came to pass, SPLC became the organizational equivalent of Jesse Jackson (and there are many others who come to mind more recently), a subject I have documented numerous times, including these posts:
Southern Poverty Law Center Completes Its Descent Into Madness (regarding SPLC attack on Sarah Palin)
Confirmed – SPLC Exaggerated About Klan In Rhode Island
Neo-Nazis in Rhode Island? SPLC exaggerates again
SPLC’s hatewatch gives cover to hate
SPLC Demonizes Supporters of Traditional Marriage
Southern Poverty Law Center Still Peddling Lie That Giffords Shooter Was Right-Winger
SPLC put Rand Paul on 2011 list of “Electoral Extremism”
Legal Insurrection gets results: Ben Carson taken off SPLC “Extremist” List
ABC and NBC Help SPLC Smear Successful Religious Liberty Law Organization as “Hate” Group
In addition to examining the substance of SPLC’s “hate lists,” I examined the financial incentive for SPLC to exaggerate the number of hate groups for fundraising purposes. Among other things, SPLC counts chapters of national groups as separate entities, thus vastly overstating the number of “hate” groups even using SPLC’s politicized standards.
In my April 7, 2013 post, SPLC — milking old northern liberals for decades, I linked to a still must-read Weekly Standard article by Charlotte Allen, King of Fearmongers. The article recounts the long history of progressives complaining about SPLC’s manipulative fundraising, and the pathetic record of the SPLC in funding programs:
What has infuriated the SPLC’s liberal critics is their suspicion that Morris Dees has used the SPLC primarily as a fundraising machine fueled by his direct-mail talents that generates a nice living for himself (the SPLC’s 2010 tax filing lists a compensation package of $345,000 for him as the organization’s chief trial counsel and highest-paid employee) and a handful of other high ranking SPLC officials plus luxurious offices and perks, but that does relatively little in the way of providing the legal services to poor people that its name implies.
CharityWatch (formerly the American Institute of Philanthropy), an independent organization that monitors and rates leading nonprofits for their fundraising efficiency, has consistently given the SPLC its lowest grade of “F” (i.e., “poor”) for its stockpiling of assets far beyond what CharityWatch deems a reasonable reserve (three years’ worth of operating expenses) to tide it over during donation-lean years. But even if the SPLC weren’t sitting on an unspent $256 million, according to CharityWatch, it would still be a mediocre (“C+”) performer among nonprofits.
I concluded my post with this lament:
As I have mentioned before, I was once a consistent donor to SPLC in the late 1970s and early 1980s. That is why the SPLC’s politicized fear-mongering has me so upset and so determined to expose SPLC for what it now is.
I was once one of those (not so old) northern liberals who was milked.
Even before Charlottesville, SPLC was coming under scrutiny for its fundraising tactics and priorities. In my post Southern Poverty Law Center “extremist” lists used “to silence speech and speakers”, I discussed a very important Politico Magazine article in which I was quoted, Has a Civil Rights Stalwart Lost Its Way?
William Jacobson, a law professor at Cornell and critic of the SPLC, says the group has wrapped itself in the mantle of the civil rights struggle to engage in partisan political crusading. “Time and again, I see the SPLC using the reputation it gained decades ago fighting the Klan as a tool to bludgeon mainstream politically conservative opponents,” he says. “For groups that do not threaten violence, the use of SPLC ‘hate group’ or ‘extremist’ designations frequently are exploited as an excuse to silence speech and speakers,” Jacobson adds. “It taints not only the group or person, but others who associate with them.”
The Politico Magazine article delved into how SPLC is riding the anti-Trump wave in staffing and fundraising:
… A certain PR savvy was baked in from the beginning. Dees got his start in the direct-mail marketing of consumer goods, a pursuit that earned him a small fortune in the 1960s and a spot in the Direct Marketing Association’s hall of fame. When he founded the SPLC, he was also putting his marketing skills to use on behalf of George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign—in exchange for McGovern’s mailing list….
The organization has been criticized for spending more of its money on fundraising and overhead and less on litigation than comparable groups like the American Civil Liberties Union. And it has taken flak for amassing a huge endowment—more than $200 million—that is disproportionately large for its operating costs. SPLC President Richard Cohen defends the endowment as necessary to ensure the group can survive legal battles that might last for years. (As for Dees himself, he made $337,000 in 2015, according to the watchdog group Charity Navigator; Cohen made $333,000 the same year.) In 1994, the local paper, the Montgomery Advertiser, ran a series investigating the group’s marketing, finances and personnel practices that was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize. (Dees responded—according to a transcript from a 1999 Nieman Foundation discussion on journalism about nonprofits—by mobilizing prominent liberal politicians for whom he had raised money to lobby the Pulitzer Board not to award the prize to the Advertiser.)
Other critics say the SPLC picks its causes with its bottom line in mind. In the 1980s, the group’s entire legal staff quit to protest Dees’ obsession with the remnants of the KKK—which still captured the imagination of the group’s liberal donor base—at the expense of lower-profile but more relevant targets….
Ken Silverstein, a liberal journalist and another critic of the group who authored a scathing investigation of its marketing and financial practices for Harper’s in 2000, attributes the growing scope of the SPLC’s censures to a financial imperative to wade into hot-button issues that will rile donors. “The organization has always tried to find ways to milk money out of the public by finding whatever threat they can most credibly promote,” he says.
SPLC is even more in the news in the wake of Charlottesville, because its “hate” lists are being used to help censor the internet and to try to deprive groups and persons on those lists of funding, Charlottesville is being exploited to attack freedom of speech and internet freedom:
This was a really bad week for freedom of speech and internet freedom.
As documented in my post Gathering Storms And Threats to Liberty, corporations that operate the gateways to the internet, such as domain registrars and services such as Cloudfare, have come under pressure and have capitulated to drive the neo-Nazi website Daily Stormer from the internet. That pressure is now moving to other organizations based on biased and politicized “hate” lists from groups such as the Southern Poverty Law Center and Anti-Defamation League.
Because SPLC remains the darling of liberals, it has reaped a windfall from Charlottesville. Not that it needed the money. Its 2016 annual report shows over $300 million in endowment, with program spending (legal and educational) one-tenth that amount and more than covered by normal annual fundraising.
I am quoted in this Washington Times report, Wealthy Southern Poverty Law rakes in Hollywood, Silicon Valley cash after Charlottesville:
The Southern Poverty Law Center has padded its already well-stocked coffers with at least $2.5 million in donations from celebrities and corporations following the white-nationalist melee in Charlottesville, Virginia.
George and Amal Clooney have donated $1 million to “combat hate groups,” while Apple CEO Tim Cook announced gifts of $1 million to the SPLC and $1 million to the Anti-Defamation League in response to the deadly Aug. 12 Charlottesville clash….
At the same time, others worry that Charlottesville has obscured legitimate concerns about the SPLC, which has been accused of juicing its fundraising by exaggerating the Ku Klux Klan threat.
“These celebrity donations are virtue-signaling. SPLC does not need the money,” said Cornell Law School professor William Jacobson in an email. “Its 2016 annual report shows over $300 million in endowment, with program spending (legal and educational) one-tenth that amount and more than covered by normal annual fundraising.”
Indeed, the $2.5 million comes as fairly small change for the SPLC, which reported revenue of $54 million in 2015 and spent 22 percent of its budget on fundraising, versus 64 percent on programs and services, according to Charity Navigator.
Top-ranked charities ideally spend at least 75 percent of their budgets on programs and services, as per CharityWatch, which last year downgraded the SPLC from a “C+” to an “F” for holding more than three years’ available assets in reserve.
“Unfortunately, these virtue-signaling donations reinforce SPLC’s bad habit of sensationalizing and politicizing ‘hate’ to generate even more money for its already bloated coffers,” said Mr. Jacobson, who runs the right-leaning Legal Insurrection blog.
How does SPLC use this ever-expanding bounty? By attacking people like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who writes in The NY Times today, Why Is the Southern Poverty Law Center Targeting Liberals?
Since the violence in Charlottesville 10 days ago, when white supremacists left one young woman dead and 19 others injured, the Southern Poverty Law Center has hit the jackpot….
But is donating money to the S.P.L.C. the best way to combat this poison? I think not. If Tim Cook and Jamie Dimon had done their due diligence, they would know that the S.P.L.C. is an organization that has lost its way, smearing people who are fighting for liberty and turning a blind eye to an ideology and political movement that has much in common with Nazism.
I am a black woman, a feminist and a former Muslim who has consistently opposed political violence. The price for expressing my beliefs has been high: I must travel with armed security at all times. My friend and collaborator Theo van Gogh was murdered in broad daylight.
Yet the S.P.L.C. has the audacity to label me an “extremist,” including my name in a “Field Guide to Anti-Muslim Extremists” that it published on its website last October.
In that guide, the S.P.L.C. claims that I am a “propagandist far outside the political mainstream” and warns journalists to avoid my “damaging misinformation.” These groundless smears are deeply offensive, as I have dedicated much of my adult life to calling out the true extremists: organizations such as Al Qaeda and ISIS. Yet you will look in vain for the S.P.L.C.’s “Field Guide to Muslim Extremists.” No such list exists.
With its coffers overflowing, and its staff expanding, expect SPLC to ramp up its use of “hate” lists to bludgeon political opponents, to poison legitimate political debate, and to make certain that the answer to speech SPLC deems offensive is less, not more, speech.