Court Dismisses Lawsuit Over ‘Hate Group’ Label

September 17, 2019 Updated: September 17, 2019

A federal court dismissed a racketeering lawsuit brought by the nonpartisan Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) against leaders of the Southern Poverty Law Center for blacklisting it as a “hate group.”

CIS Executive Director Mark Krikorian told The Associated Press the group hasn’t yet decided if it should appeal the ruling.

Critics say the Montgomery, Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), a far-left 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.

Among the conservative groups that have been labeled “hate groups” are the David Horowitz Freedom Center, Alliance Defending Freedom, Center for Security Policy, Liberty Counsel, and Christians and Jews United for Israel.

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.

The center blames something it calls the “Trump Effect” for thousands of cases of alleged “prejudice,” “bullying,” and “hate crimes” in the nation’s schools.

The SPLC claimed during the litigation that CIS, which uses the motto “low immigration, pro-immigrant,” has been on its “radar for years” but that it decided to designate CIS “an anti-immigrant hate group” because it “has a decades-long history of circulating racist writers, while also associating with white nationalists.”

CIS rejected the allegation, pointing out that it maintains a weekly email listserv that offers plenty of links to articles related to immigration. The listserv “includes articles from mainstream publications such as an op-ed by an economics columnist for the Washington Post and op-ed in the New York Times about the cost of immigration.”

Krikorian has described the contents of the weekly email as a “roundup of immigration commentary (from all sides) [that] has occasionally included pieces by writers who turned out to be cranks.”

In other words, CIS said it wasn’t endorsing the views expressed in the articles it sends out to its subscribers. It was attempting to enlighten them and allow them to make up their own minds on immigration-related issues.

SPLC officials designated CIS a hate group in 2016, based on the group’s opinions, and published 13 blog posts on its Hatewatch blog that reiterated the claim that CIS was a hate group. This caused CIS to lose donations and be dropped from the AmazonSmile program that allows Amazon shoppers to help charities of their choice by donating 0.5 percent of the price of any purchase, CIS said.

In a 15-page memorandum opinion, Judge Amy Berman Jackson of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, who was appointed in 2011 by then-President Barack Obama, found that plaintiff CIS’s suit must fail on legal grounds because the group “clearly tried to shoehorn a defamation claim into the RICO framework.”

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.

To succeed in a RICO suit, three conditions must be met.

It must be shown that a defendant committed one of the crimes—known as “predicate acts” listed in the RICO statute. Among those crimes are mail and wire fraud. A pattern of criminal activity by a defendant, meaning at least two crimes, must be demonstrated, and the crimes have to somehow be related. And the claim must be brought within four years from the time the victim becomes aware of the damages.

The defendants in this case, ex-SPLC official Richard Cohen and current SPLC official Heidi Beirich, argued that “allowing a RICO claim to stand based upon their hate group designation implicates First Amendment concerns,” the judge wrote. But because the court finds that CIS “failed to state a claim under RICO” by not showing crimes were committed, the court “need not address defendants’ First Amendment arguments.”

The plaintiffs “failed to allege that any fraud occurred,” and its allegations “do not lend support for its legal conclusion that defendants engaged in a ‘scheme to defraud,’” the judge wrote.

“The upshot of the complaint is that defendants advanced a conclusion that was debatable, and that this expression of a flawed opinion harmed plaintiff’s reputation.”