As Fundraising Shoots Up, Lawsuits Threaten Southern Poverty Law Center

By Matthew Vadum
Matthew Vadum
Matthew Vadum
Matthew Vadum is an award-winning investigative journalist and a recognized expert in left-wing activism.
September 26, 2019Updated: October 4, 2019

News Analysis

The embattled far-left Southern Poverty Law Center flew past the half-billion-dollar mark in assets for the first time, ending the last tax year with $518.3 million in assets—after raking in $122.9 million that year, according to a newly disclosed IRS filing.

To provide a sense of scale, $518.3 million is more in assets than either the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation Inc. ($452.8 million) or Planned Parenthood Federation of America Inc. ($446.3 million) had at the end of 2017.

Critics say the Montgomery, Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), a public-interest law firm whose founder, Morris Dees, and president, Richard Cohen, were ousted earlier this year amid accusations of racial discrimination and employee abuse, unfairly tars conservatives as racist as a matter of policy, treats all opposition to illegal or legal immigration, open borders, and multiculturalism as hate, and all political expression of those views as hate speech.

The SPLC, critics also say, deliberately lumps together all sorts of groups on America’s political right in order to intimidate and “de-platform” non-leftists. Conservative, libertarian, anti-tax, immigration reductionist, and other groups are all viewed as legitimate targets for vilification.

The group has its defenders in the media who take its work seriously. For example, in Rolling Stone, Amelia McDonell-Parry wrote that “the SPLC has developed a reputation for being an authority on extremist hate groups, monitoring and exposing their activities to the public, media and law enforcement.”

The Center appears to have brought in donor dollars by blaming something it calls the “Trump Effect” for thousands of cases of alleged “prejudice,” “bullying,” and “hate crimes” in the nation’s schools. Within weeks of President Donald Trump’s election, the group released the results “of a new survey, answered by more than 10,000 teachers across the country detailing the negative effect the election has had on school climates.”

The SPLC called on the president-elect “to immediately and forcefully publicly denounce racism and bigotry and to call on Americans to stop all acts of hate” even though there was little evidence from across the country that Trump supporters had done anything wrong. To the contrary, media reports at the time were bursting with stories of Trump supporters and Make America Great Again hat-wearers being violently set upon by angry liberals and progressives.

As part of its mission, the SPLC brings civil rights lawsuits that attack school choice, tracks so-called hate groups, lobbies companies not to deal with those groups, publishes newsletters, and provides educational materials and grant money to teachers in hopes of reaching young minds.

Among the conservative groups that the SPLC has labeled “hate groups” are: the Center for Security Policy, a non-partisan, educational public policy organization focused on national security; the David Horowitz Freedom Center, a conservative think tank dedicated to opposing the political left; the Alliance Defending Freedom, a legal organization that defends religious freedom; Liberty Counsel, a Christian ministry, which, among other issues, is pro-life; and Christians and Jews United for Israel, which supports Israel’s right to exist as a sovereign state.

SPLC official Mark Potok told the 2007 Michigan Alliance Against Hate Crimes Conference, “I want to say plainly that our aim in life is to destroy these groups, completely destroy them.”

Attack on Family Research Council

The SPLC label of “hate group” has in turn seemed to inspire hate.

The SPLC famously ignited controversy when it labeled a conservative group, Family Research Council, a “hate group” because it opposes homosexuality on religious grounds. Liberal Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank called it “absurd” for the SPLC to place FRC, which he called “a mainstream conservative thinktank,” “in the same category as Aryan Nations, Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, Stormfront and the Westboro Baptist Church.”

But gay rights activist Floyd Lee Corkins acknowledged he acted based on the dubious hate group report, shooting up FRC national headquarters in 2012, nonfatally wounding building manager Leo Johnson before he was subdued. Corkins said he wanted to kill as many FRC employees as possible, after which he planned to rub Chick-fil-A sandwiches in their faces as they died. Chick-fil-A became a target of LGBT protests in 2012 when its CEO, Dan T. Cathy, acknowledged he was “guilty as charged” of supporting anti-gay-marriage initiatives.


Some groups resist the label of “hate group.” In June 2018, the SPLC paid more than $3 million as part of a legal settlement to former Muslim extremist Maajid Nawaz for wrongfully placing him and his London-based counter-extremism group, Quilliam, on an anti-Muslim hate list.

Other lawsuits appear to be in the making.

Liberty Counsel and 60 other organizations are considering filing defamation lawsuits against the SPLC, according to PJMedia, which Liberty Counsel chairman Mat Staver confirmed in an interview with The Epoch Times.

Originally 30 groups directly affected by the SPLC were involved in discussions about a legal strategy against the Center, but over time the figure ballooned to 60, Staver said.

“They are putting together more information in preparation of suing in various jurisdictions,” he said, adding he did not expect a class-action lawsuit to be filed against the SPLC. Defamation and deprivation of civil rights lawsuits, as well as federal and state racketeering lawsuits are a possibility, Staver said. Liberty Counsel is also considering suing the Center, he said.

“The Southern Poverty Law Center creates these false lists that have serious consequences both from an economic standpoint, which is their goal. Also, from a physical safety standpoint, we [at Liberty Counsel] had to undergo more security for our staff.”

The SPLC is “actively engaged with social media and corporate clients to engage in these conspiracies,” he said. This includes pressing banks and credit card processing companies not to deal with any organization it has declared is a so-called hate group, he said.

Liberty Counsel, a pro-Christianity public interest law firm, was labeled a “hate group” by the SPLC which claims it is guilty of “anti-LGBT discrimination under the guise of religious liberty,” for opposing homosexuality, among other things.

“Liberty Counsel doesn’t hate anybody, we don’t demean individuals, we certainly are opposed to violence,” Staver said. “We’re not a hate group in any stretch or interpretation of the word.”

Staver said his group gets lumped in with genuine extremist groups by the SPLC because “we disagree with them on core issues.”


In a lawsuit already filed, a federal judge in Missouri refused in July to dismiss a defamation lawsuit brought against the SPLC by Craig Nelsen a former heroin addict, who created the Robinson Jeffers Boxing Club (RJBC), a 13-week residency “life treatment” program for men with opioid addictions or other serious problems.

Nelsen said the program was “designed to address the specific challenges unique to white males in the United States, [but that] the program was open to, and would benefit, men in distress of any race.” True to form, the SPLC claimed Nelsen was a neo-Nazi, anti-immigrant, and racist, and that his club was for whites only.

In September federal judges dismissed two lawsuits brought by nonprofit groups over hate group designations. It is unclear if either group will appeal.

In a 15-page memorandum opinion, Washington-based Judge Amy Berman Jackson, who was appointed by former-President Barack Obama, threw out a racketeering lawsuit the nonpartisan Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) filed against SPLC officials, as The Epoch Times previously reported.

The suit must fail on legal grounds because the group “clearly tried to shoehorn a defamation claim into the RICO framework,” the judge wrote on Sept. 13. RICO, that is, the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, allows for the filing of lawsuits by private parties for acts performed as part of an ongoing criminal enterprise.

On Sept. 19, Alabama-based Judge Myron H. Thompson, appointed by former President Jimmy Carter, tossed out a lawsuit brought against the SPLC by Coral Ridge Ministries Inc., also known as D. James Kennedy Ministries. The faith-based group sued the SPLC and Amazon in 2017 after being expelled from the AmazonSmile program after being designated a hate group because, in SPLC’s words, “it maligns the LGBTQ community, portraying it as perverted and a threat to the nation.”

“The court should not be understood as even suggesting that Coral Ridge is or is not a ‘hate group.’ It has merely held that SPLC’s labeling of the group as such is protected by the First Amendment and that the Amazon defendants’ exclusion of the group from receiving donations through the AmazonSmile charitable-giving program does not violate Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”

Other groups have complained that the SPLC “hate group” designation has cost them the chance to raise funds through AmazonSmile, including the Alliance Defending Freedom and the Ruth Institute, a Christian-based organization dedicated to defending the family.

Raising Money

Conservatives—and more than a few leftists—have long complained that the SPLC perennially hypes and exaggerates incidents involving racism in America in order to promote its radical agenda and raise a mountain of money.

JoAnn Wypijewski wrote in the left-wing The Nation magazine that “No one has been more assiduous in inflating the profile of [hate] groups” than the center’s founder, Morris Dees.

The SPLC “spends most of its time—and money—on a relentless fundraising campaign, peddling memberships in the church of tolerance with all the zeal of a circuit rider passing the collection plate,” Ken Silverstein wrote in Harper’s magazine.

The $518.3-million figure for SPLC assets for the year ended Oct. 31, 2018, was up $41.3 million from $477 million the year before.

The SPLC also beefed up its workforce, reporting having 360 employees and 514 volunteers, compared to 302 employees and 197 volunteers the year before. As a result of the workforce expansion, the group paid out $29.2 million in salaries and benefits, compared to $23.9 million the year before, according to a Return of Organization Exempt from Income Tax (IRS Form 990) signed by the 501(c)(3) nonprofit’s secretary-treasurer, Teenie Hutchison on Jan. 31, 2019.

The SPLC acknowledges in the IRS filing that it “has ownership in several foreign corporations,” indirectly owns “several passive foreign investment companies,” and has financial dealings in the Cayman Islands, a tax haven in the Caribbean.

Teaching Tolerance

The SPLC has tried to spread its radical views to the education sector through its Teaching Tolerance program, which critics say is a means of ideologically indoctrinating students.

In late 2017, the group started handing out money as part of its Educator Grants program “to support projects that promote affirming school climates and educate youth to thrive in a diverse democracy.” The grants “support social justice work at the classroom, school and district level.”

“Teachers and administrators know best how to come up with innovative ways to teach their students to fight bigotry and hate,” Maureen Costello, director of Teaching Tolerance said. “We want to help them turn those ideas into projects that will have a big impact on the way students see themselves and how they view and treat others.”

“Our hope is to build, over time, a network of educators who are enthusiastic about learning from each other and who will share their experiences fighting injustice in their schools with the broader Teaching Tolerance community,” Costello said. “Instead of allowing prejudice and hate to fester in the minds of our young people, we want to cultivate future generations with greater empathy, kindness and understanding for one another.”

On its IRS form, the Center disclosed having given more than $600,000 in grants.

What are educators doing with the money?

Grant recipient Amy Dickerson worked with her students in New Orleans on what should replace Confederate statues.

“We started the project with reflecting on our own identity and generating adjectives to describe ourselves,” Dickerson said. “Students studied the artist Nick Cave, who creates wearable pieces of art called Soundsuits that express his identity and views on social justice.”

In Boston, a grant was used to “empower” “black and brown girls” to “practice self-love, self-advocacy and sisterhood.” Ayanna Pressley, the first black woman elected to the Boston City Council, addressed the crowd. Pressley, a far-left Democrat, is now a U.S. representative from Massachusetts who is a member of the radical so-called Squad headed up by U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a self-described democratic socialist from New York.

Teaching Tolerance embraced the Global Climate Strike protest event Sept. 20.

“From the civil rights movement to recent youth-led movements to stop gun violence, we have asked educators to learn from young people’s activism and to instill students with an understanding of their power and value.”

Educators were encouraged to “introduce students to young people around the world who have truly been at the forefront of the fight for environmental justice—and made a difference in the face of apathy. Perhaps most famously, 16-year-old Greta Thunberg has helped inspire global action and conversation through her activism.”

Educators “should consider introducing students to the diverse coalition of young people calling for climate justice.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center did not respond to a request for comment.


Matthew Vadum
Matthew Vadum is an award-winning investigative journalist and a recognized expert in left-wing activism.