A compliant press helped bring Alliance Defending Freedom's anti-LGBTQ hate back into the mainstream in 2017
The hate group led the fight against queer and trans equality this year, but many in the press fell for its "free speech" narrative
Blog ››› ››› BRENNAN SUEN
Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) began 2017 by being designated as an anti-LGBTQ hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and finished the year arguing before the Supreme Court in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commision. Throughout that time, ADF fervently opposed LGBTQ equality at every step while also moving its hardline extremism more and more into the mainstream. The media, in turn, aided the group’s efforts by largely failing to contextualize its unrelenting campaign against queer and trans people.
In the landmark Masterpiece Cakeshop case, ADF is representing plaintiff Jack Phillips, who was sued after he refused to bake a wedding cake for Charlie Craig and David Mullins, a gay couple. ADF argued before the Supreme Court on December 5, and the court will decide the case next year. But Masterpiece Cakeshop is just the tip of the iceberg of ADF’s anti-LGBTQ work this year, all of which has one thing in common: seeking to make LGBTQ people second-class citizens.
ADF spent the year attacking nearly every aspect of LGBTQ equality at the school, local, state, and federal level
ADF’s representation of the plaintiff in Masterpiece Cakeshop case did not occur in a vacuum. The group and its allied lawyers have worked on at least eight other legal cases involving religious exemptions this year. Religious exemptions are often used by anti-LGBTQ groups and people to justify discrimination under the guise of “religious freedom.” ADF helped write, promote, and justify Mississippi’s sweeping anti-LGBTQ religious exemption law and fought for it in court, and it worked with Attorney General Jeff Sessions before he issued religious exemptions guidance in October. In addition, ADF has been leading the fight against transgender student equality in schools across the United States, including by influencing anti-trans “bathroom bills” in at least eight states.
SPLC labeled ADF as an anti-LGBTQ hate group in February due to a history of the group’s leaders and affiliated lawyers “regularly demoniz[ing] LGBT people, falsely linking them to pedophilia, calling them ‘evil’ and a threat to children and society, and blaming them for the ‘persecution of devout Christians.’” The hate group designation was also conferred in part for ADF’s history of supporting anti-sodomy laws, which effectively criminalize homosexuality. In 2003, the group filed an amicus brief in Lawrence v. Texas that defended state sodomy laws and called “same-sex sodomy … a distinct public health problem.” ADF also supports attempts to turn LGBTQ people straight through dangerous conversion therapy, which every mainstream medical group has discredited for decades and which has severe mental and medical health consequences for its victims.
ADF has worked hard to mainstream its image, but the media has a responsibility to start contextualizing the group
One hallmark of ADF’s year -- as it headed to the Supreme Court for one of its most consequential cases -- has been its work alongside its allies and a sympathetic right-wing media to mainstream its image and move the goalposts on what is considered hate. In a report for The Nation, Sarah Posner summarized the group’s strategy: “Increasingly wary of being called discriminatory in the wake of a decision last year by the Southern Poverty Law Center to label it a hate group, ADF has redoubled its efforts to portray its views as mainstream.” Posner quoted First Amendment attorney Greg Lipper saying that ADF has been able to “‘take an extreme position’ and mainstream it so thoroughly that it has become ‘a viable theory at the Supreme Court.’”
Media Matters has found that major newspapers like The Washington Post and The New York Times tend to avoid using SPLC’s “hate group” label when it comes to anti-LGBTQ groups but frequently identify other hate groups designated by SPLC, particularly white nationalist groups. ADF and its allies have taken advantage of media’s hesitancy to use the label and actively worked to discredit SPLC’s designation, especially when media outlets do use it. In September, ADF and a number of other groups wrote a letter to “members of the media” asking them to stop using the designation. The same groups signed a similar letter in June attacking a nonprofit database for using the designation; the database eventually succumbed to the pressure and announced its decision to stop using the label partly because of “harassment and threats directed at our staff and leadership.” The groups involved in these campaigns comprise a sort of “who’s who” of anti-LGBTQ bigotry and are highly influential.
When ABC News and NBC News used the “hate group” designation to describe ADF in June reports, ADF demanded a retraction from ABC and began an aggressive media strategy to attack SPLC and attempt to discredit ABC’s and NBC’s reports. Right-wing media figures joined the chorus and echoed ADF's and others’ attacks on the designation, and ADF representatives soon made the rounds on Fox News, appearing on Fox & Friends, The Story with Martha MacCallum, and Tucker Carlson Tonight. The network has proven to be a safe space for the group to push this narrative. In July, Tucker Carlson called SPLC a “totally discredited but extremely rich left-wing organization” that attempts to “shut down legitimate debate by labeling ideas it disagrees with as ‘hate speech.’” Later in the segment, Carlson interviewed ADF Vice President Kristen Waggoner about ABC’s and NBC’s reports. In another segment, Carlson lamented that SPLC’s list of hate groups “lump[ed]” anti-LGBTQ groups with “Nazis and crazy people.” This flawed argument has been recycled thoroughly by hate groups and right-wing media.
But it’s not just right-wing media that has been sympathetic to this campaign to discredit the “hate group” label. CNN changed a headline from “Here are all the active hate groups where you live” to “The Southern Poverty Law Center’s list of hate groups” after pressure from right-wing figures and media. News outlets are more than just hesitant to use the “hate group” label, though, and often fail to give any context to ADF’s work at all. Media outlets owe it to their audiences to, at the very least, contextualize ADF and groups like it. Yet a lot of coverage has been lacking in that context.
Much of the reporting around the Masterpiece Cakeshop case fell into this trap. Time and time again, media outlets failed to contextualize ADF, instead simply noting that it was arguing the case or sometimes calling it “conservative.” In their reports on the case, The Washington Post, NPR, Los Angeles Times, and The New York Times all mentioned ADF’s role in the case but failed to mention its years-long campaign against LGBTQ equality, and those compose just a small sampling of a larger problem. A report by Time explicitly said that ADF “is making the argument that [the case] is fundamentally not about LGBTQ discrimination but about free speech” but also failed to note any of ADF’s other work combating LGBTQ equality. The piece did appropriately address the ramifications of the case for queer and trans rights, but it failed to counter ADF’s narrative or give background to its work, which would’ve shown the readers that ADF’s argument about the case “not [being] about LGBTQ discrimination” is without any merit in the context of its other work.
Leaving out important context about ADF can give readers an impression that the case, or even ADF’s work as a whole, may truly be about “free speech” rather than discrimination against LGBTQ people. ADF’s history proves that, for the group, the Masterpiece case is not about so-called “artistic freedom” or the First Amendment; it’s about preventing LGBTQ people from being fully recognized citizens in public and even private life. If news outlets won’t call it hate in 2018, they can at least give enough information for their readers to see it for themselves.