For the first time in 33 years that the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) has classified right-wing organizations as hate groups, a defamation lawsuit against them is uncovered.
On Monday, the Georgia-based Dustin Inman Society (DIS) announced it would be seeking additional counsel in its defamation lawsuit against the Southern Poverty Law Center. Libel attorney Todd McMurtry, a partner at Hemmer DeFrank Wessels, will join her legal team, as will Liberty Counsel, a nonprofit organization focused on protecting Christian values through strategic litigation. DIS’ original counsel, James McKoon, founder of McKoon, Williams, Atchley & Stulce, PLLC, remains in place.
SPLC calls DIC an “anti-immigrant hate group” and says the organization “focuses on denigrating all immigrants.” The DIS consistently emphasizes its rejection of the criminal aspect of illegal immigration and not immigration as a whole, although it strongly opposes amnesty. The DIS website prominently states, “Illegal immigrants are not ‘immigrants’.” and says their coalition is diverse and includes immigrants. According to the SPLC, DIS “supports efforts to make life difficult for immigrants to walk alone.”
“It came as quite a surprise to the proud immigrants on our diverse advisory board and our immigrant supporters to learn that the SPLC is using its vast wealth and influence in the media to convince the world that we somehow hate immigrants” , Founder DA King and President of DIS, said. “We are proud to be actively involved in enforcing immigration policy. The filing shows that the SPLC takes an anti-enforcement position on the matter. It seems they hate their political opposition and are ready to prove it.”
King and DIS claim the classification as an “anti-immigrant hate group” is incorrect and defamatory. They argue that this is incorrect because the DIS opposes illegal immigration and under strict interpretation of federal definitions an immigrant has a lawful right to reside in the United States. They argue that the SPLC demonstrated malicious intent through unjustified willful ignorance of the DIS and King’s position and factual history by claiming that the group was founded in 2003. For example, the SPLC profile states that King founded the group in 2003.
According to King, he founded the DIS in 2005 and named it after a sixteen-year-old who was killed in a 2000 car accident in Gilmer County, Georgia, caused by Mexican national Gonzalez Gonzalo Harrell. A grand jury charged Harrell with murder by vehicle, but he fled while receiving medical treatment and has been at large for decades. In 2019, the FBI still listed Harrell as a fugitive. DIS claimed that Harrell obtained a valid North Carolina driver’s license using his Mexican birth certificate.
“The SPLC’s stated motivation is to ‘destroy’ groups it disagrees with, and it accomplishes this goal by mislabeling nonviolent organizations as ‘hate groups.’ leave must stop,” said Mat Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel.
SPLC’s current DIS profile relies heavily on direct quotes from King. One is said to be from a Republican Party meeting in Newton County, Georgia, in April 2007, where King said undocumented immigrants are “not here to mow your lawns — they’re here to blow up your buildings.” and your children, killing you and me.”
McMurty is nationally known for his defamation lawsuits against CNN and The Washington Post on behalf of Nicholas Sandman, the Covington Catholic High School student who died after participating in the 2019 March for Life in Washington with Native American Nathan Phillips and a group of black Hebrews Israelites confronted DC After CNN and The Washington Post released out of context video of the incident showing Sandman wearing a MAGA hat and smiling in front of Phillips, former CNN host Reza Aslan tweeted, suggesting that the then 17-year-old should be beaten . Others suggested doxxing Sandman, directly calling on followers to “beat him in the balls.”
In April, W. Keith Watkins, a federal judge for the Middle District of Alabama, ruled against the SPLC’s motion to dismiss the DIS’ defamation lawsuit, allowing it to proceed with disclosure. In court documents, he noted that the DIS had sufficient arguments for the libel requirements of falsehood and maliciousness in the language of the “anti-immigrant hate group” and “denigrates all immigrants.” SPLC argues that these statements are First Amendment protected statements, but Watkins wrote that this is not the case because SPLC presented the statements as the factual conclusions of rigorous research, not opinion.
SPLC has been sued for defamation multiple times, but the cases have always been settled or dismissed. A notable case was a $3.375 million settlement and formal apology to Islam reformer Maajid Nawaz and his organization, the Quilliam Foundation. SPLC included Nawaz on a list of “anti-Muslim extremists” in 2016, accusing him of “destroying Islam.”
King filed a very similar defamation lawsuit in February 2020, but the Alabama Fifteenth Circuit Court dismissed it unscathed, finding that King did not have sufficient allegations of malicious intent on the part of the SPLC. This second lawsuit, filed in April 2022, includes claims against SPLC reports from 2021 and updated arguments of bad faith.
On June 22, SPLC added two attorneys from Ballard Spahr to its team. Maxwell S. Mishkin has successfully defended the Associated Press and the Electronic Frontier Foundation against libel claims. Chad R. Bowman worked on the same Associated Press case, as well as successful defenses for Gawker Media and The New Yorker.