This article originally appeared in the Washington Examiner on April 29, 2019.
Twitter has quietly dumped the Southern Poverty Law Center from its “Trust and Safety Council,” according to a recent report. After a March scandal exposed the Law Center’s leadership for apparently participating in the racist and sexist conduct it proclaims to be policing, it’s tempting to ask why Twitter didn’t loudly promote the separation. But a more pertinent question is: Why have media and corporate America ever relied upon the Law Center’s advice at all?
The recent scandal may have exposed the Law Center’s history of hypocrisy, but the rabid watchdog’s dishonest definition of “hate,” and arguably even more duplicitous fundraising from it, has been an obvious and ongoing scandal for years. It’s well past time for those who have relied upon this, sometimes dangerously, unscrupulous guidance to also dump the Law Center.
The Law Center’s reputation as the hate authority stems from supposedly well-researched lists of hateful extremist groups and individuals. And its so-called “Hate Map” does include some seemingly well-selected targets, such as 51 Ku Klux Klan affiliates.
But the Klan has absurd company. A 2016 Southern Poverty Law Center guide to supposedly anti-Muslim extremists warned journalists to steer clear of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a decorated human rights advocate who agitates against female gentile mutilation and other forms of Muslim extremism. Maajid Nawaz, mentioned on the same list, successfully sued the Law Center into a $3.4 million settlement and a public apology. Other Southern Poverty Law Center warning lists of alleged extremists have included Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, and Supreme Court litigators at the Alliance Defending Freedom.
The Family Research Council, a traditional conservative Christian group with a downtown D.C. headquarters, was deemed a hate group by the Law Center in 2010. Real hate arrived at the Family Research Council’s front door less than two years later when a domestic terrorist shot a security guard. Debriefed by the FBI, the gunman said he’d both picked his target and found its address by shopping the SPLC “hate” list.
Reckless language can have awful consequences. To ask why the Law Center would continuously be so careless despite the risks is to solicit the answer given by Willie Sutton when asked why he robbed banks: “Because that’s where the money is!” The Southern Poverty Law Center raked in $132 million in 2017, and its endowment pushed to nearly half a billion dollars.
Observers from within the civil rights community have known for years the Law Center and its founder, Morris Dees, were all about the money.
Yale law professor Stephen Bright, former director of the Southern Center for Human Rights, told the Los Angeles Times the Law Center’s fundraising was “fraudulent” and called Dees a “flimflam man” who “managed to flimflam his way along for many years.”
Former Law Center employee Bob Moser, writing in the New Yorker, noted the hate lists always seemed to grow suspiciously in concert with fundraising appeal hyperbole: “though the center claimed to be effective in fighting extremism, ‘hate’ always continued to be on the rise.” This led to a cynical saying amongst the staffers: “The S.P.L.C.—making hate pay.” Moser speculated over whether he and his compatriots were “complicit” by just quietly cashing paychecks and “ripping off donors on behalf of an organization that never lived up to the values it espoused.”
The corporate friends of the Law Center need to demonstrate Moser’s commendable self-awareness. Like Twitter, Amazon and other big companies have relied on the Law Center’s hate lists to make major business decisions. AmazonSmile, the retailer’s charity program, will not allow nonprofits listed on the Law Center’s “Hate Map” to participate. Visa and Mastercard flirted with refusing to process credit card donations made to groups listed on the map.
Prospects for internal reform at the Law Center are slim. Board member Karen Baynes-Dunning became the interim president in the wake of the scandals. Presumably, she didn’t join the board if she disagreed with the reckless hate-list branding and fundraising the organization has long engaged in. A recent interview posted by NPR didn’t reveal any intent on her part to deviate from this course.
And so Citizens for Corporate Accountability recently appealed to Southern Poverty Law Center donors to suspend giving until the group retracts its noxious fundraising tool. It issued an open letter to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, urging him to rethink the Southern Poverty Law Center relationship.
It’s about time. If corporate America wants to shun contemptible business partners, why would it allow just such an odious actor to guard the door?