Following Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ controversial speaking engagement at an event hosted by the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), right-wing media figures lashed out at ABC and NBC News for accurately reporting that the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) has designated ADF as an anti-LGBTQ hate group.
On July 11, Sessions spoke at an event hosted by ADF, the nation’s largest anti-LGBTQ hate group. Many progressive and LGBTQ advocacy organizations objected to Sessions’ decision to attend the event, in part because of ADF’s long-standing history of anti-LGBTQ extremism. Sessions’ office initially refused to release the transcript of his speech, but it was leaked to the conservative and extreme anti-LGBTQ website The Federalist.
In their reporting on Sessions’ speech, both ABC News and NBC News accurately noted that the SPLC has designated ADF as an “anti-LGBT hate group.” ABC reported that SPLC described ADF as a group that “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,” also adding that ADF objected to its hate group designation as a “lie.” The report also quoted SPLC’s deputy legal director for its LGBT Rights Project, who said ADF had “rightfully earned” the hate group label.
In multiple reports, NBC News described ADF as “conservative Christian law firm that was designated a ‘hate group’ in 2016 by the Southern Poverty Law Center” and highlighted its role in promoting bathroom bans “aimed at keeping transgender people out of restrooms and other private facilities that correspond to their gender identity and presentation.” NBC noted ADF’s years-long attempts at criminalizing homosexuality and Sessions’ concerning record on LGBTQ issues. The network also included a response from an ADF attorney who attempted to delegitimize SPLC by calling it “increasingly irrelevant” and “extreme.”
Following these reports, right wing media figures quickly attacked NBC and ABC News. ADF responded as well, issuing a statement demanding a retraction from ABC and claiming that the network had “committed journalistic malpractice,” saying it “cut and paste false charges ... by a radically left-wing, violence-inciting organization.”
In a July 13 National Review article, senior writer and former ADF senior counsel David French called SPLC a “dangerous joke” that spreads “vicious hate.” French claimed that ADF was labeled a hate group “merely because [its members] advocate for orthodox Christian principles and the liberty to live those principles.” He also suggested that there are only two forms of extremism that SPLC should track -- “racist terrorists and white supremacists” -- and concluded that “media outlets who use the SPLC to assess Christian speech expose only their own bias and incompetence.”
Mollie Hemingway, senior editor at The Federalist, declared that ABC News reporters “smeared Christians who believe the Bill of Rights secures religious liberty as a ‘hate group’” and argued that ADF “is not a hate group at all, but a civil liberties organization that battles for religious liberty.” Hemingway went on to warn the media against using SPLC’s designations in the future, threatening that they would be turning “journalism into anti-religious propaganda on behalf of a partisan group” and could potentially “be perceived as enemies of average Americans.”
Katrina Trinko, managing editor of The Daily Signal, wrote that SPLC’s designations put “conservatives’ safety at risk” of persecution and violence by the left, and that “once again, the mainstream media is demonstrating it doesn’t care about the impact of extremist rhetoric on conservatives.” Right-wing outlet The Daily Caller published a post about ADF’s demand that ABC News retract its story, writing that SPLC “frequently smears conservatives as ‘extremists.’” It also published tweets from conservatives who “blasted the media coverage of ADF as an obvious example of media bias.”
During the July 14 edition of his show, Fox News prime-time host 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.’” Carlson asserted that NBC News and SPLC “think they’re in charge” of deciding “which ideas are legitimate and which ideas are so dangerous we must suppress them.” Carlson also hosted ADF Vice President Kristen Waggoner, who asserted that ABC and NBC had committed “journalistic malpractice,” and she and Carlson both said SPLC is a “scam.”
In addition to the numerous right-wing media attacks, a Twitter campaign using the hashtag #SPLCexposed was launched by numerous other SPLC-identified hate groups and right-wing figures, including anti-LGBTQ hate group Family Research Council, anti-immigrant hate group Federation for American Immigration Reform, and anti-Muslim extremist Brigitte Gabriel.
This reaction is nothing new. Hate groups and far-right commentators have been predictably outraged in the past when mainstream media like The Associated Press and CBS News’ Bob Schieffer properly identified hate group representatives. Just last month, ADF similarly lashed out at Time magazine and columnist Judy Shepard over a piece outlining the extent of ADF’s anti-LGBTQ extremism and its body of work targeting trans students with bathroom bans in schools. In 2014, an ADF attorney asserted that the murder of Shepard’s son Matthew was a hoax to advance the “homosexual agenda.”
However, as Media Matters for America has noted, it is a myth that the SPLC bases its hate group designations on conservative or religious beliefs about sexuality and marriage. As SPLC stated in 2010, when it first began listing anti-LGBTQ hate groups, “viewing homosexuality as unbiblical does not qualify organizations for listing as hate groups.” Organizations are labeled anti-LGBTQ hate groups when they knowingly spread “demonizing lies about the LGBT community,” engage in “baseless, incendiary name-calling,” or actively work to criminalize the lives of LGBTQ people.
SPLC added ADF to its list of anti-LGBTQ hate groups in February 2017 because ADF’s leaders and 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’” and have also “supported the criminalization of homosexuality in several countries.”
As a majority of Americans have grown to support LGBTQ equality, hate groups now cloak anti-LGBTQ extremism under the false pretense of protecting religious freedom or privacy, or protecting women and children from sexual assault. ADF, for instance, has recently made the rounds in the media for representing clients in “religious freedom” and “free speech” cases. But it is also the group behind many of the anti-LGBTQ bills proposed in state legislatures and bathroom bans proposed in school districts, which have been introduced in unprecedented numbers over the last two years.
In the past, ADF has openly advocated to “recover the robust Christendomic theology of the 3rd, 4th, and 5th centuries.” And in 2012, ADF published a list of suggested and discouraged terminology in its media guide, instructing readers to use the phrase “homosexual agenda” instead of “lesbian and gay civil rights movement,” refer to transgender people as “sexually confused,”and use the term “special privileges” when discussing anti-discrimination laws. In an amicus brief for Lawrence v. Texas, the 2003 Supreme Court decision that declared anti-sodomy laws across the country unconstitutional, ADF argued that “the history of this country reflects a deep conviction that sodomy is criminally punishable conduct and not a constitutionally protected activity” and that “state legislatures have always possessed a broad authority to outlaw private, consensual sex.”
ADF’s actions speak for themselves. Despite the group’s efforts to maintain its highly cultivated facade of respectability in the media, its history of anti-LGBTQ extremism cannot be undone or erased. When journalists employ SPLC’s hate group designation and contextualize ADF’s current work, they provide accurate, much-needed information to the public.