Far-right hate groups across extremist ideologies have united to attack and discredit their hate group designation by Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) in an attempt to regain legitimacy and rehab their images. Many hate groups have attempted to delegitimize the SPLC’s hate group label over the years, but their efforts have dramatically ramped up in 2017 in reaction to a series of escalating events including SPLC designating anti-LGBTQ group Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) and anti-immigrant group Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) hate groups and media outlets accurately labeling these organizations as such in their reporting.
Who’s who, and why are they hate groups?
The Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) is the largest anti-LGBTQ hate group in the nation, and, according to Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), it “specializes in supporting the recriminalization of homosexuality abroad, ending same-sex marriage, and generally making life as difficult as possible for LGBT communities in the U.S. and internationally.” ADF operates on $48 million-plus annual budget and has what it refers to as a “powerful global network” of over 3,100 ADF-trained “allied attorneys.” SPLC designated ADF a hate group because ADF’s leaders and its affiliated lawyers have “regularly demonized 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.’” ADF’s influence is widespread. It has played a role in dozens of Supreme Court cases, including regarding abortion, religion, tuition tax credits, and LGBTQ issues; it has special advisory status at the United Nations; it has at least 55 affiliated lawyers serving in influential government positions at the state and federal levels; and it has infiltrated local school boards across the country.
ADF formally supported the criminalization of sodomy in the U.S. in 2003 when it filed an amicus brief in Lawrence v. Texas defending state sodomy laws which called “same-sex sodomy … a distinct public health problem.” ADF has also worked to criminalize gay sex abroad, including in Jamaica, Belize, and India, and is leading the national campaign for “bathroom bills” targeting transgender youth. One ADF attorney peddled the myth that Matthew Shepard’s violent murder in 1998 was not an anti-gay hate crime. SPLC designated ADF a hate group on February 15, but it wasn’t till early June that ADF started challenging the designation, attacking Judy Shepard, Matthew Shepard’s mother, for penning an op-ed about groups like ADF that “bullying LGBTQ children.” Since then, ADF and its allies have successfully pressured the nonprofit database GuideStar to reverse its decision of putting the SPLC hate group label on 46 nonprofit groups on its website. In a series of media appearances, ADF has also relentlessly attacked ABC and NBC for accurately labeling it a hate group in news reports regarding Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ speech at an ADF event.
The Family Research Council (FRC) is another anti-LGBTQ hate group that wields significant influence in the current administration; its senior fellow, Ken Blackwell, was officially appointed to President Donald Trump’s Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, which critics have called a voter suppression effort. FRC President Tony Perkins embraced and endorsed Trump as a candidate during the presidential election cycle (and met with him at the White House earlier this month). And at least four people, including Blackwell, who are affiliated with FRC were a part of Trump’s transition team. FRC has a budget of tens of millions of dollars and promotes the idea “that people can and should try to change their sexual orientation” or “just not act on it.” According to SPLC’s extremist file, FRC “often makes false claims about the LGBT community based on discredited research and junk science” in order to “denigrate LGBT people.” FRC’s official position is that “homosexual conduct is harmful to the persons who engage in it and to society at large” and “is by definition unnatural.” Former FRC Vice President Rob Schwarzwalder accused gay youth of joining the Boy Scouts of America “for predatory purposes,” and various FRC representatives and publications have repeatedly compared homosexuality to pedophilia. Peter Sprigg, a senior fellow at FRC, asserted that LGBTQ youth suicide rates would drop if the teenagers were “discourage[d] from self-identifying as gay, lesbian, or bisexual” and urged others “not to create a positive social environment for the affirmation of homosexuality.” In a 2010 appearance on MSNBC, Sprigg also said that the United States should “outlaw gay behavior.” In 2011, the FRC called for its supporters to pray for countries that had laws criminalizing sodomy and were being pressured by the U.S. to remove them, and it suggested that homosexuality “has had a devastating impact upon Africans,” citing the AIDS crisis as an example.
FRC has fought against its hate group designation since SPLC gave it the label in 2010. In that same year, the group launched a “Start Debating, Stop Hating” campaign in response to the label, which it called “slanderous.” FRC also took out a full-page ad in Politico as part of the campaign. After a gunman shot a security guard at FRC headquarters in 2012, Perkins blamed SPLC’s “reckless rhetoric” for the shooting and asserted that the shooter was “given a license to shoot an unarmed man by organizations” such as the SPLC. More recently, FRC joined other hate groups in sending a letter to GuideStar’s president demanding that he remove the hate group labels from its database and praised GuideStar when it decided to do so. FRC also led the “#SPLCexposed” hashtag campaign on Twitter, which attempted to delegitimize the hate group label and drew a number of hate groups to the campaign.
Liberty Counsel is an anti-LGBTQ hate group founded by Mat Staver, former dean of Liberty University School of Law, that “shares a close affiliation with Liberty University,” according to SPLC. Staver has called LGBTQ History Month a "sexual assault on our children," repeatedly warned that the Supreme Court's decision to legalize same-sex marriage would trigger a revolution and civil war, and claimed nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ people will result in the "death of some individuals."
Liberty Counsel also famously represented Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis in litigation after she refused to issue marriage licenses to same and opposite-sex couples in 2015; Talking Points Memo reported that Staver “compared Davis’ plight to that of Jews in Nazi Germany” during a radio interview. Staver has also compared LGBTQ people to pedophiles, once saying that allowing gay youth and adults in the Boy Scouts will cause “all kinds of sexual molestation” and create a “playground for pedophiles to go and have all these boys as objects of their lust.” Liberty Counsel has called gay sex “harmful sexual behavior” and pushed the myth that LGBTQ people “can change.” Former Liberty Counsel attorney Matt Barber said that LGBTQ people “know intuitively that what they are doing is immoral, unnatural, and self-destructive,” adding that they have “tied their whole identity up in this sexual perversion.” Barber has also called “disease, depression, drug and alcohol abuse, and suicide … consequences” of being gay.
Staver signed the letter that asked GuideStar to remove hate group designations and accused SPLC of using the label as part of its “aggressive political agenda.” On June 28, Liberty Counsel filed a lawsuit against GuideStar, saying it and SPLC “are intent on destroying pro-family organizations,” and accused GuideStar’s CEO of “using GuideStar as a weapon to defame, harm, and promote his liberal agenda.” Liberty Counsel’s blog post on the subject also linked to the personal Twitter account of the CEO and his wife. GuideStar’s decision to remove hate group labels was reportedly in part because of “harassment and threats directed at our staff and leadership.”
The Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) is a lobbying hate group founded by white nationalist John Tanton. Tanton is currently editor and publisher of the quarterly journal The Social Contract, which, according to SPLC, has “claimed that multiculturalists are trying to replace ‘successful Euro-American culture’ with ‘dysfunctional Third World cultures.’" During his time at FAIR, Tanton wrote a series of memos that warned of a “Latin onslaught” and “depicted Hispanics as hyperactive breeders,” which caused many high-level conservatives to flee his orbit. FAIR has ties to a number of other extremists, including white supremacists Peter Brimelow and Jared Taylor and Holocaust denier Kevin MacDonald.
Tanton currently sits on FAIR’s board but has retired from the limelight. He was replaced by current President Dan Stein, who frequently appears in right-wing and mainstream media to promote anti-immigrant policies and smear immigrants. In one such interview, Stein claimed that “many [immigrants] hate America, hate everything that the United States stands for.” Stein has defended Tanton and, according to SPLC, “celebrated a new ‘disdain’ in the media and among intellectuals for ‘the political agenda of those who openly attack the contributions of Western Civilization.’"
In 2009, FAIR published a report titled “A Guide to Understanding the Tactics of the Southern Poverty Law Center in the Immigration Debate,” which smeared SPLC as a discredited entity and claimed that journalists have an unfavorable view of the organization. Since then, FAIR has attacked SPLC on Twitter. Dale Wilcox, president and general counsel of FAIR’s legal arm, the Immigration Reform Legal Institute (IRLI), signed the letter calling on GuideStar to remove its hate group labels. Wilcox also wrote an op-ed in Breitbart titled “Why the Mainstream Media Must Stop Citing ‘Anti-Hate’-Crusader Southern Poverty Law Center,” and his group has attacked GuideStar on Twitter for including the SPLC’s hate group labels.
Tanton also founded FAIR’s sister organization, the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS). SPLC labeled CIS a hate group in 2017 for peddling work by discredited white nationalists and eugenicists. CIS works as the research arm of what SPLC has dubbed “the nativist lobby,” the anti-immigrant lobbying effort spearheaded by groups Tanton founded, including FAIR, CIS, and NumbersUSA. CIS frequently publishes skewed research meant to denigrate immigrants and promote anti-immigration policies, claiming, for example, that immigrants are taking jobs away from native-born Americans and disproportionately using welfare benefits.
CIS Executive Director Mark Krikorian has actively disputed the hate group label by defending white nationalists and eugenicist pseudoscience. In an op-ed in The Washington Post in March, Krikorian complained that the SPLC “made a hate figure of John Tanton” and downplayed a CIS contributor’s assertion that Hispanic immigrants may never “reach IQ parity with whites” as merely “contentious.” He also called the “hate group” label “an attempt to delegitimize and suppress views regarding immigration held by a large share of the American public.” Krikorian and other CIS employees have repeatedly sought to smear SPLC, and Krikorian has used his platform to attack GuideStar for using SPLC’s hate group labels.
ACT for America has transformed into “the largest grassroots anti-Muslim group in America,” according to SPLC, which labels it a hate group. The group’s founder, Brigitte Gabriel, has been fearmongering that Muslim immigrants and refugees from the Middle East have transformed Europe into “Eurabia” and has declared that a practicing Muslim “cannot be a loyal citizen of the United States.” ACT often organizes conferences that convene anti-Muslim leaders and groups, including Frank Gaffney, head of hate group the Center for Security Policy. In 2008, ACT launched a campaign called Stop Shariah Now to fearmonger about Sharia “creeping” into western culture and, according to SPLC, “worked closely” with Gaffney “to push anti-Shariah legislation at the state level.”
Gabriel has attacked SPLC as biased against conservatives, and she was also one of the hate group leaders who signed the letter blasting GuideStar for using SPLC’s hate group labels. She has also penned her own letter to GuideStar defending her group and other hate groups.
February 15: SPLC included ADF and CIS in its list of active hate groups in 2016. ADF did not immediately respond.
March 17: The Washington Post published an op-ed by CIS Executive Director Mark Krikorian, who condemned the SPLC list and wrote that the “blacklist” was “an attempt to delegitimize and suppress views regarding immigration held by a large share of the American public.”
April 18: After more than two months, ADF issued a statement in which it responded to the SPLC designation by not responding to it: “ADF doesn't have time to respond to organizations who do nothing more than call names, create division and incite violence across the country in order to raise money."
May 15: Judy Shepard, the mother of 22-year-old Matthew Shepard, who was killed in anti-gay homicide, wrote an op-ed in Time magazine about “multimillion-dollar ‘hate groups’” such as ADF “bullying LGBTQ children” in an attempt to ban transgender people from using the restrooms that align with their gender identity.
May 17: The Federalist published an attack on SPLC’s hate group designation, comparing it to the “burn book” from the movie Mean Girls. The post accused SPLC of using the hate group label “to manipulate the lives of others, smear reputations, control personal relationships, and reap the spoils,” as well as calling it an attempt to “control all speech.” Numerous hate group representatives, including Krikorian, and accounts tweeted out the story. In fact, retweeting this story became one of ADF’s first official attacks on SPLC’s designation.
June 7: Time magazine updated Shepard’s op-ed with a response from ADF defending its work and bringing up her son’s death:
True hate is animosity toward others, and it often takes the form of violence. Sadly, Ms. Shepard knows what that is. She lost her son to senseless violence. We at ADF condemn all such manifestations of true hate. They have no place in our society. We remain steadfast in affirming basic human rights and dignity through debate, dialogue, and principled advocacy.
June 9: ADF published a full response to Shepard’s op-ed on its blog, which more forcibly attacked Shepard and accused her of “name-calling and slander” and spreading a “lie.” The post also spread myths about transgender people and said that allowing them to use the bathroom that corresponds with their gender identity “compromises the privacy and dignity of young students who do not want to share overnight facilities, locker rooms, showers, and restrooms with the opposite sex.”
June 21: Hate groups united to pen a letter to GuideStar asking the nonprofit to remove the hate group labels, writing that the designation is “a political weapon targeting people it deems to be its political enemies” and calling SPLC’s list of hate groups “ad hoc, partisan, and agenda-driven.” Co-signers of the letter included representatives from IRLI, FRC, Liberty Counsel, ACT for America, ADF, and numerous others.
June 21: On the day the hate groups sent the letter to GuideStar, The Wall Street Journal published an op-ed by The Weekly Standard’s Jeryl Bier attacking GuideStar and accusing the SPLC of “besmirching mainstream groups like the FRC.” Bier has appeared on FRC President Tony Perkins’ radio show. In the op-ed, Bier asserted that “SPLC’s work arguably contributes to the climate of hate it abhors” and lamented that journalists are citing SPLC’s designation.
June 26: A Washington Post report on GuideStar’s reversal quoted a number of hate groups sharing talking points about the designation, including that it was linked to the shooting at FRC and “the recent shooting of House Majority Whip Steve Scalise.” The report highlighted the hate groups’ letter accusing the designation of being “partisan” and wrote that Christians “said they’d been targeted as hateful for opposing same-sex marriage.”
June 27: Vice published a profile about ADF “stealthily seizing power in the nation's public school systems,” its “unmistakable effort to make schools hostile to queer students,” and its hate group designation. ADF refused to speak to Vice for the article.
June 28: Politico magazine published a lengthy article questioning whether SPLC’s hate group designation is “overstepping its bounds.” The article specifically lent credibility to hate groups CIS, which the report noted has “been invited to testify before Congress more than 100 times,” and FRC, which it called “one of the country’s largest and most established Christian conservative advocacy groups.” The right-wing Media Research Center highlighted the piece on its website the same day it was published.
June 28: Liberty Counsel filed a lawsuit against GuideStar, saying it and SPLC “are intent on destroying pro-family organizations” and accused GuideStar’s CEO of “using GuideStar as a weapon to defame, harm, and promote his liberal agenda.” Liberty Counsel’s blog post on the subject also linked to the personal Twitter account of the CEO and his wife.
July 11: Attorney General Jeff Sessions gave a closed-door speech to ADF at its “Summit on Religious Liberty” in California.
July 13: ADF demanded a retraction and apology from ABC for its report, calling it “defamatory” and “journalistic malpractice.”
July 13: Sessions’ speech, which the Department of Justice refused to release, was leaked to anti-LGBTQ website The Federalist. In the speech, Sessions compared the so-called battle for “religious freedom” to Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington.
July 14: ADF began an aggressive media strategy, with its representatives appearing on Fox News’ Fox & Friends, The Story with Martha MacCallum, and Tucker Carlson Tonight to attack the SPLC and attempt to discredit ABC and NBC. ADF’s representatives either repeated the “journalistic malpractice” line during the interview or called the outlets’ reporting “unethical” or “fake news.” Meanwhile, right-wing media also rushed to ADF’s defense.
July 16: FRC also launched a counteroffensive against the hate group designation aiming to “expose” the SPLC as “a left wing smear group who has become exactly what they set out to fight, spreading hate and putting targets on people's backs.” FRC urged supporters to use the hashtag #SPLCexposed. Hate groups such as white nationalist website VDARE, ACT for America, CIS, and FAIR, or their representatives, all joined FRC on Twitter using the hashtag.
July 19: The Wall Street Journal published an op-ed by Edwin Meese, who has worked with FRC and other groups, calling ADF “a respected civil-rights law firm.” In the op-ed, Meese also repeated ADF’s “journalistic malpractice” charge against ABC and NBC for giving “credence to the SPLC’s recklessly defamatory hate list” in their reporting. Meese wrote that their reporting “is a prime reason” for Americans’ distrust of the media and called on reporters to “stop spreading malignant propaganda.”
July 19: Forbes published an op-ed by Brian Miller of the Center for Individual Rights attacking ABC and NBC’s use of the “hate group” label and arguing that the use of the label was an attempt to “shut down conversation.” Miller concluded that “the very security that is necessary for diverse people to contribute to our social fabric” is at stake “in our climate of heated rhetoric.”