Politics & Policy

Southern Poverty Law Center ‘Hate’ Labels Deserve a Vigorous Response

A protester yells anti-Trump slogans at a demonstration in Manhattan in 2017. (Amr Alfiky/Reuters)
The Alliance Defending Freedom doubles down on its call to civil discourse.

Last week, we were honored to have U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions speak at the Alliance Defending Freedom Summit on Religious Liberty, where he reiterated the Trump administration’s commitment to upholding the first freedoms of every American. In his remarks, Sessions, who many in the media lambasted for speaking at the same event a year ago, also confronted the troubling smear of ADF as a “hate group” by the once-venerable Southern Poverty Law Center.

That slander, Sessions said, is no way to describe a respected legal-advocacy organization that has won nine cases at the U.S. Supreme Court in the past seven years, including three victories after the SPLC tagged ADF with its erroneously vicious “hate group” label in early 2017. The SPLC has “used this designation as a weapon, and they have wielded it against conservative organizations that refuse to accept their orthodoxy and choose instead to speak their conscience,” he said. “They use it to bully and intimidate groups like yours, which fight for the religious freedom, the civil rights, and the constitutional rights of the American people.”

Sessions went on to say that, at his direction, the Department of Justice is reviewing partner organizations to make sure they no longer work with groups that, like the SPLC, “unfairly defame Americans for standing up for the Constitution or their faith.” Anticipating those strong words from Sessions, the SPLC released a statement from its president, Richard Cohen, defending its purposeful vilification of ADF and others with whom it disagrees.

The SPLC’s name-calling has a clear goal. They wish to silence anyone who disagrees with them on a variety of subjects, including, in our case, same-sex marriage and related LGBT issues.

Our nation has a choice. Will we stand up for free speech for all, or will we give in to the growing impulse to harass, vilify, and coerce every person who disagrees with our views? Will we stand for freedom of the press, even when we don’t like its viewpoint? These rights travel together and must both be defended. Defending the right of those with other viewpoints to speak and publish is an absolute prerequisite for a society that embraces a truly civil discourse. Forced homogeneity of thinking never results in civility.

ADF seeks to cultivate a society that is typified by the free exchange of ideas and respect and tolerance for those with different views. These uniquely American and constitutional principles are essential in a diverse society like ours. They enable us to peacefully coexist with each another. They are the best way to ensure human flourishing.

Neither waving the white flag on free speech nor harassing political opponents into silence has a place in our society.

Yet some have given up on these core American values. By indiscriminately throwing around its “hate group” label, the SPLC cripples civil discourse and breeds contempt for those who see things differently. It’s the same story in the academy, as you can see in recent comments from Georgetown University law professor Louis Michael Seidman to the New York Times, who said what he has “come to see is that it’s a mistake to think of free speech as an effective means to accomplish a more just society.”

But neither waving the white flag on free speech as Professor Seidman suggests, nor harassing political opponents into silence as the SPLC does, has a place in our society. In fact, that’s what the U.S. Supreme Court ruled not just once, but twice — this past term — in cases that ADF was honored to argue: MasterpieceCakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission and National Institute for Family and Life Advocates v. Becerra.

In both cases, the state was merely acting on the same philosophical premises of the SPLC and Professor Seidman. In Masterpiece, Colorado forced a man of faith to create artistic expression that violated his religious beliefs about marriage rather than letting all views on marriage flourish. And in NIFLA, pro-abortion California passed a law that compelled pro-life pregnancy centers to provide free advertising for the abortion industry rather than respecting these groups’ life-affirming views. The Court rightly rebuked these states’ attempts to commandeer conscience and coerce speech in the name of “forward thinking.”

Outgoing Justice Anthony Kennedy got it right in his concurrence in NIFLA when he wrote, “It is forward thinking to begin by reading the First Amendment as ratified in 1791; to understand the history of authoritarian government as the Founders knew it; to confirm that history since then shows how relentless authoritarian regimes are in their attempts to stifle free speech.”

It’s time we all get the message Justice Kennedy and Attorney General Sessions have sent. It’s time to double down on our efforts to persuade — not vilify — those with whom we disagree.

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