Liberty Counsel has joined the legal team as counsel representing the Dustin Inman Society (DIS) and its founder and president, D.A. King, in their claims against the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). They assert that the SPLC defamed the organization and King by labeling it an “anti-immigrant hate group.” The DIS and King have suffered damage to their reputations and the SPLC’s “hate label” has harmed the organization and its mission regarding immigration laws. Attorneys Todd McMurtry and James McKoon will also be part of the legal team with Liberty Counsel.
In Donald A. King and Dustin Inman Society v. Southern Poverty Law Center, Inc., U.S. District Judge W. Keith Watkins denied the SPLC’s motion to dismiss the case on April 24, 2023, and now this becomes the first “hate group” defamation case against the SPLC that can move forward with discovery.
Todd McMurtry, a partner in Hemmer DeFrank Wessels, will be co-counsel on the legal team. McMurtry is a nationally recognized defamation attorney. He represented Nick Sandmann, a student at Covington Catholic High School in Kentucky, who attended the 2019 March for Life event in Washington, D.C. wearing a MAGA hat. Sandmann and fellow students encountered a Native American man and a group of Black Hebrew Israelites. Unedited video depicts Sandmann and his fellow students being ridiculed and insulted while Sandmann calmly tried to diffuse the situation. Edited video aired by media outlets made it appear Sandmann and his fellow students were the aggressors. The media coverage damaged Sandmann’s reputation. As a result, McMurtry initially filed defamation lawsuits against the Washington Post and CNN for $250 million and $275 million, respectively, for their coverage of the incident that resulted in national outpouring of hate toward Sandmann and his fellow students. The Washington Post and CNN settled the lawsuits privately in 2020 for undisclosed amounts.
James McKoon, founder of McKoon, Williams, Atchley & Stulce, PLLC, will remain as local counsel. McKoon initially filed this lawsuit against the SPLC.
On March 31, 2023, U.S. District Judge W. Keith Watkins rejected the SPLC’s motion to dismiss the DIS defamation case. Judge Watkins wrote, the “SPLC argues that labeling DIS as an anti-immigrant hate group is ‘an expression of opinion protected under the First Amendment’ because the term ‘anti-immigrant hate group’ ‘is not capable of being empirically proven true or false.’ SPLC argues that the designation is a ‘political opinion’ on a ‘highly controversial matter’ that is not provable as false. Plaintiffs counter that SPLC’s classification of DIS as an anti-immigrant hate group on its online publications of the Hate Map and Intelligence Report is not ‘merely an opinion’ but conveys to a reasonable reader a fact reached after ‘some rigorous analysis.’ Plaintiffs have the better argument.”
The court wrote, the “SPLC’s statements were not made during a heated public debate, but rather were published, arguably after deliberation and investigation. Construing the inferences in Plaintiffs’ favor, a reasonable reader could conclude that SPLC was ‘literally contending’ that DIS is a group that hates and vilifies all immigrants. These circumstances are enough ‘to raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence,’ that SPLC’s designation of DIS as an anti-immigrant hate group ‘is sufficiently factual to be susceptible of being proved true or false,’” wrote Judge Watkins.
King started the organization in 2005 and named it in memory of a 16-year-old Georgia boy killed by an illegal immigrant in a car crash in 2001.
The SPLC designated the DIS as an “anti-immigrant hate group,” in its annual Intelligence Reports published in 2018, 2019, 2020, and 2021 and classified it as a “hate group” in its annual Intelligence Reports and Hate Maps published in 2019, 2020, and 2021. The SPLC also stated that King “focuses on vilifying all immigrants.”
However, in 2011 the SPLC had explicitly stated that the DIS was not a “hate group” and it did not meet its definition of an “anti-immigrant hate group.” An SPLC representative, Heidi Beirich, stated that King’s “tactics have generally not been to get up in the face of actual immigrants and threaten them[.] . . Because he is fighting, working on his legislation through the political process, that is not something we can quibble with, whether we like the law or not.” Yet the SPLC reversed course in 2018, right after registering a lobbyist to oppose a bill the DIS supported.
Therefore, King was able to present the argument in the case that the SPLC had reason to doubt the truth of its claim that the DIS was actually an “anti-immigrant hate group.”
In 2019, the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) filed a lawsuit under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, in the District of Columbia federal court, against SPLC then-president Richard Cohen and Heidi Beirich, who oversaw the SPLC’s “Hatewatch” blog. SPLC labeled CIS as a “hate group” and it lost financial support because of the label. CIS was the first to challenge SPLC under RICO, bringing a racketeering charge on the basis of allegations that SPLC is committing wire fraud over the internet by falsely labeling CIS as a “hate group” with the intention to cause financial harm. One example of financial damages included AmazonSmile’s removal of CIS from its charity program, citing SPLC’s label as the reason. According to CIS, the removal from AmazonSmile cost them at least $10,000.
In 2018, Islamic reformer Maajid Nawaz and his organization, the Quilliam Foundation, settled claims against the SPLC regarding its false reporting. The $3.375 million settlement refers to the SPLC’s “co-publishers,” which includes Media Matters for America, regarding the publication of false statements that accused Nawaz and Quilliam of “savaging Islam.” The SPLC agreed to pay the settlement as the result of a demand from Nawaz and his organization for the inclusion on the SPLC’s now-defunct “anti-Muslim extremists” list published in December 2016. The SPLC issued an apology which included, “The Southern Poverty Law Center was wrong to include Maajid Nawaz and the Quilliam Foundation in our Field Guide to Anti-Muslim Extremists. Since we published the Field Guide, we have taken the time to do more research and have consulted with human rights advocates we respect… We would like to extend our sincerest apologies to Mr. Nawaz, Quilliam, and our readers for the error, and we wish Mr. Nawaz and Quilliam all the best.”
Media Matters uses the SPLC “hate group designation” as a source for critical statements on its website about pro-family and conservative organizations. The SPLC’s false labeling is false and dangerous and has caused acts of violence against groups smeared with SPLC’s “hate label.”
In 2013, Floyd Corkins was sentenced to 25 years in prison for his attempted mass murder in 2012 at the Family Research Council in Washington, DC. Corkins admitted that he selected FRC as his target because it was on the SPLC’s “hate group” list.
Liberty Counsel Founder and Chairman Mat Staver said, “The SPLC’s stated motivation is to ‘destroy’ groups with which it disagrees, and it accomplishes this objective by falsely labeling nonviolent organizations as ‘hate groups.’ This label is false and those who rely upon it must stop.”