The war against the Southern Poverty Law Center

Hate groups claim SPLC is the one actually inciting violence.

Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, speaking at a news conference in 2016. CREDIT: AP Photo/Susan Walsh
Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, speaking at a news conference in 2016. CREDIT: AP Photo/Susan Walsh

A coalition of conservative groups has launched yet another attack on the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) in an attempt to discredit the organization’s “hate group” labels. Despite the SPLC’s long history of tracking and documenting extremism, the groups contend, in a new open letter issued to the media Wednesday, that it is actually the SPLC that is stoking violence.

The letter, organized by the Family Research Council (FRC) and Media Research Center, was signed by nearly 50 right-wing leaders, many of whom are either affiliated with groups the SPLC has designated as hate groups or have been personally identified as extremists themselves. The signers are predominantly aligned with evangelical Christianity and are known for advocating anti-LGBTQ and/or Islamophobic positions, including Michael Farris (Alliance Defending Freedom), Sandy Rios and Tim Wildmon (American Family Association), Frank Gaffney (Center for Security Policy), and Pamela Geller (American Freedom Defense Initiative).

According to the letter, “the SPLC’s ‘hate group’ propaganda has been linked to two terrorist shootings in the D.C. area.” The first of these was when a man named Floyd Lee Corkins II opened fire on FRC’s offices in 2012. A brave security guard managed to stop him, suffering a non-fatal injury in the process. FRC immediately blamed the shooting on SPLC’s map tracking hate groups, claiming it gave Corkins “a license to shoot.” A footnote in the new letter adds, “If Corkins had been successful, his killing spree could have rivaled that of the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando.” When Corkins pleaded guilty in 2013, he admitted that he researched anti-gay groups and found them listed on SPLC’s website.

The second shooting the letter tries to blame SPLC for is the more recent attack on Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA) and other Republican lawmakers who were practicing for the Congressional Baseball Game. James Hodgkinson, the shooter, “was discovered by the public to have ‘liked the SPLC on Facebook,” the letter explains. That is the full extent of the “link” connecting that shooting to the SPLC.


If the media keeps citing the SPLC, “we are left to wonder if another Floyd Lee Corkins will soon be incited to violence by this incendiary information.”

But the SPLC does nothing to incite violence against anybody; indeed, it is known for working with law enforcement to help stop violence. According to court documents, Corkins had been planning for many years to respond violently to those who reject LGBTQ equality. It was only after he had already made the decision to commit a violent act and started to research targets that he found those groups through the SPLC. It was not the SPLC that incited Corkins, but FRC’s own rhetoric.

Attempting to link these atrocities with the SPLC is a clear attempt to distract from how and why the organization actually designates hate groups and extremists. The letter avoids addressing the SPLC’s criteria for hate groups, instead describing its signatories as “mainstream groups” that simply “press for the protection of conventional, Judeo-Christian values.” They try to distinguish themselves as “public interest law firms and think tanks” that have “traditional conservative” views that the SPLC is prejudiced against.

The letter is just the latest fodder in a very active campaign conservatives launched against the SPLC earlier this year. A nearly identical list of signatories appeared on a letter back in June objecting to Guidestar including “hate group” designations in its registry of nonprofit financial documents. Guidestar removed the designations, but the Liberty Counsel still sued.

When Attorney General Jeff Sessions spoke at an Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) conference in July, many outlets, including ABC News, noted that the SPLC classified as it a hate group. ADF objected, sending surrogates on a media tour objecting to the “smear” while taking no accountability for the positions — like favoring the criminalization of homosexuality — that earned the group its hate group designation in the first place.


Later that month, D. James Kennedy Ministries, formerly known as Coral Ridge Ministries, produced a half-hour video attacking the SPLC for its hate group labels, focusing again on the FRC shooting. Indeed, the content of that video closely parallels the arguments made in the new letter. Last month, that group filed its own lawsuit, claiming that the hate group labels amount to defamation and religious discrimination.

Fox News has been assisting with this onslaught throughout the summer. When ADF was upset about news outlets calling a hate group, Fox News was the shoulder it cried on, with the chyron calling ADF a “civil liberties organization.” ADF legal counsel Kerri Kupec, in turn, used the interview to attack the SPLC as a “violence-inciting organization.”

Tucker Carlson, in particular, has dedicated multiple segments to attacking the SPLC in recent weeks. He called the SPLC a “totally fake organization” because of questions about its finances; he was upset the organization documented all the locations of Confederate monuments; he was confused what was controversial about an Islamophobic organization’s views; and he interviewed Dr. Frank Wright of D. James Kennedy Ministries about their lawsuit, introducing the SPLC in that segment as “a left-wing attack group masquerading as a civil rights organization.” On Wednesday night, Carlson invited FRC’s Tony Perkins on his  show to discuss the letter.

This smear campaign has largely tried to frame the SPLC as being a different organization now than it was in decades past when it had historic victories over various white nationalist groups. But even though the group’s mission expanded in the 1980s to include addressing other forms of right-wing extremism, its approach hasn’t changed. For example, the SPLC has been on the front line in responding to the Charlottesville weekend of hate, documenting the individuals and organizations who participated, explaining the flags and symbols they carried, and providing resources to help people fight hate in their own communities. This work is becoming increasingly important given President Trump has cut Countering Violent Extremism funding that supported groups that resist white supremacy and de-radicalize neo-Nazis.

Indeed, in the wake of Charlottesville, the critiques from these anti-LGBTQ and Islamophobic groups now contain a telling admission. The letter insists that it’s “unconscionable” to associate their groups “with neo-Nazis and the KKK.” It’s a subtle admission that they support the work the SPLC does responding to white nationalist groups, but they just object that they’re also held to account for the kinds of demonization they espouse.

They seem to be hoping that the media will agree that their forms of intolerance are more forgivable — or aren’t intolerant at all — because they are couched in religious belief and because the persecution of LGBTQ people and Muslims is still more widely tolerated in the U.S. than more historically familiar forms of racism. As the SPLC persists in its work in the face of these attacks, it clearly doesn’t agree that a distinction is warranted.