Being Designated A 'Hate Group' By The SPLC Isn't Defamation, Says Federal Court

from the careful-with-that-anti-free-speech-litigation,-plaintiffs dept

The Southern Poverty Law Center has just escaped from a bogus defamation lawsuit brought against it by yet another displeased recipient of the SPLC’s “hate group” designation. (h/t Adam Steinbaugh)

Back in February, Gavin McInnes — the founder of “western chauvinist” group Proud Boys — sued the SPLC for calling the Proud Boys a hate group. SPLC defended itself by pointing out all the hateful things the Proud Boys have said/done, as well as all the hateful things Gavin McInnes has said/done.

It seems highly unlikely McInnes will prevail in this lawsuit. Unfortunately, the SPLC will still have to defend itself against these bogus claims, and others filed by similar groups that have decided to litigiously object to the SPLC’s assessment of their hate levels.

Coral Ridge Ministries (now Truth In Action Ministries) sued the SPLC in 2017 over its hate group designation, which resulted in Amazon blocking Coral Ridge from receiving charitable donations from its AmazonSmile program. The single claim against Amazon is supposedly related to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Coral Ridge feels Amazon is discriminating against it for its religious beliefs — beliefs that include claiming homosexuality is a lawless abomination. The court points out, towards the tail end of its 141-page decision [PDF], that this claim is implausible, even if one is inclined to read the Act as covering online-only charitable donation platforms.

While Title II “is to be liberally construed and broadly read,” Miller, 394 F.2d at 349, Coral Ridge wants to stretch the statute beyond its breaking point. Perhaps Title II extends beyond physical “place[s],” § 2000a(b), to the internet. Perhaps it protects more than just potential customers seeking goods, services, etc. Perhaps it even recognizes disparate-impact claims. But it does not protect the ability to receive money donations, where such an ability is limited exclusively to § 501(c)(3) organizations and thus not open to the public. And Title II certainly does not entitle to relief a plaintiff who does not plausibly alleged any discrimination whatsoever, whether intentional or by disparate impact.

Coral Ridge cannot force the Amazon defendants to donate money to it. Its Title II claim is due to be dismissed with prejudice.

The defamation claim against SPLC isn’t much more coherent. Coral Ridge decides only one definition of the word “hate group” will do — one that includes membership that advocates for or participates in acts of violence. The court says there are multiple definitions of “hate group” used by entities all over the world and very few of them contain this requirement. More to the point, SPLC’s definition of “hate group” does not contain this stipulation. Asserting facts not in evidence is no way to win a court case.

The court need not accept Coral Ridge’s alleged definition of “hate group” because it is a conclusory allegation. Critically, Coral Ridge fails to plead any facts to support its “generaliz[ed],” “blanket statement[]” about the commonly understood meaning of “hate group.” Roberts, 2013 WL 4046383, at *2. It does not, for example, plead that “hate group” is anywhere defined–whether in a dictionary, or by any other source or entity–to require engaging in or advocating violence or crime. Coral Ridge thus asserts “a factual inference”–the commonly understood meaning of “hate group”–“without stating the underlying facts on which the inference is based.”

The First Amendment is at stake here. And the court isn’t willing to let Coral Ridge leverage the only definition of hate group it finds acceptable into a rights-altering lawsuit win.

If courts considering motions to dismiss were obligated to accept as true plaintiffs’ factually unsupported definitions of words, concepts, and terms, it would make a mockery of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6)’s pleading standard.7 Requiring courts to accept as true plaintiffs’ pleaded definitions of words would be particularly inappropriate in public-figure defamation suits such as this one, where “there is a powerful interest in ensuring that free speech is not unduly burdened by the necessity of defending against expensive yet groundless litigation.”

The footnote attached to this paragraph spells it out clearly for Coral Ridge: words have meaning… not just your meaning.

For example, if a plaintiff buyer alleging that a defendant seller fraudulently misrepresented the number of apples in a delivery could successfully plead any definition he wanted of “apples”–such as requiring that they have seeds made of 24-karat gold–then even the most frivolous claim could survive a motion to dismiss.

Coral Ridge doesn’t survive this motion to dismiss. As the court points out, if you’re going to provide citations in support of your single, ultra-thin argument, at least try to include some citations that actually back your claim.

In its amended complaint and briefing, Coral Ridge cites three sources–other than itself and SPLC–of definitions of a “hate group”: (1) judicial opinions, (2) the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and (3) the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). The definitions–or, in the case of the judicial opinions, lack of a definition–of the term “hate group” provided by all of these sources directly contradict Coral Ridge’s allegation that a “hate group is legally and commonly understood as one that engages [in] or advocates crime or violence against others.”

The term Coral Ridge wants to argue about isn’t easily or narrowly defined. The court says there is “no single, commonly understood meaning of the term ‘hate group.'” Since there’s no precise definition, Coral Ridge cannot hope to prove the SPLC’s designation is false, and certainly not that the SPLC knew it was false when it declared Coral Ridge an “anti-LGBTQ hate group.”

Coral Ridge cannot prove the falsity of the “hate group” designation, given that, as the court has found, the designation is not provable as false. Logically speaking, a plaintiff cannot prove what is not provable.

[…]

To find actual malice just because SPLC publicized a meaning of “hate group” that conflicted with the common understanding of the term would severely undermine debate and free speech about a matter of public concern. This is because, even if the term had achieved a commonly understood meaning, that meaning would not be fixed forever, but rather could evolve through public debate. To sanction a speaker for promoting a genuinely held dissenting view of the meaning of “hate group” would be akin to punishing a speaker for advocating new conceptions of terms like “terrorist,” “extremist,” “sexist,” “racist,” “radical left wing,” “radical right wing,” “liberal,” or “conservative.” Punishing speakers to preserve status quo ideas would be anathema to the First Amendment.

The First Amendment protects a lot of speech people wish it wouldn’t. It protects Coral Ridge’s anti-LGBTQ statements — ones that include calling homosexuality “vile,” “lawless,” and “an abomination.” Many people would probably like to see speech like this suppressed with “hate speech” laws. It shouldn’t be. But, hypocritically, Coral Ridge wants to call SPLC’s “hate group” designation defamation, removing it from the shelter of First Amendment protections. But it does this while presenting itself as a fierce free speech advocate being unfairly targeted by hate speech law proposals.

The SPLC’s “hate group” work is, at best, questionable. But it’s still protected speech, even if it results in adverse outcomes for those it designates as hateful. The best response is more speech, not lawsuits that threaten the protections the plaintiffs benefit from each and every day.

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Comments on “Being Designated A 'Hate Group' By The SPLC Isn't Defamation, Says Federal Court”

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67 Comments
Stephen T. Stone (profile) says:

Re: Re:

[Aren’t queer people] trying to make it law to use certain pronouns when addressing a certain letter of the group?

No.

But it isn’t their responsibility to inform those of us who are ignorant of those facts?

It is their responsibility — exactly once, if you ask in good faith and are willing to put in the work to remember what they tell you. After that, your ignorance is not their responsibility.

Sounds like they are asking for special rights.

When you are used to societal privilege, equality can seem like oppression.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re:

"Their ‘hate group’ list is mostly a hit list against anything even remotely conservative."

Unless by "remotely conservative" you mean a series of groups peddling open white supremacy propaganda and/or pseudoreligious zealoutry aimed against non-white/non-heterosexual/non-cisgendered people then no.

It basically boils down to to what extent you feel the need to inextricably link the word "conservative" to "bigotry".

allengarvin (profile) says:

Re: 1st

You can be sued for anything.

That doesn’t mean it’s going to ever make it to trial or judgment. For that, you need to present a valid claim–and that must be consistent with the 1st amendment. Since the first amendment protects opinions, the court, a state actor, cannot impose a liability on you for that opinion. Here, no valid claim was found to have been presented, so the case was tossed.

The SPLC still had to spend a fair amount of money on lawyers to argue that. Fortunately, they had the funds to do so. Not everyone does. A proper federal anti-SLAPP law would give procedural advantages to everyone sued when it’s clear on its face there is no claim.

James Burkhardt (profile) says:

Re: Re:

The core of the ruling is that there is no one definition of Hate group, and therefore calling some group a hate group is generally a position of opinion that can not be defemation.

It is the same logic that prevents any one person from having the title ‘Strongest man in the world’ – Some People consider endurance, some people consider burst capability, ect.

It is also the same logic that lost Shiva Ayyadurai his suit against Techdirt – the only question in the suit was a question of the definition of email.

If you can’t define "Hate Group", you can’t prove something is or isn’t a hate group, and therefore the designation is not one of fact. And so, as Stone said, calling the SPLC a hate group is no more defamation than calling coral ridge defamation.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

And no, it wouldn’t be libel to call the SPLC "a hate group whose sole mission is a mob type shake-down."

The first half has been ruled a matter of opinion, but given ‘mob type shake-down’ would probably been seen as falling under extortion, which very much is a crime, depending on the context(primarily whether you provided evidence to support that position, merely asserted it as true, or worst of all implied that it was based upon evidence that you didn’t provide) I can’t help but think that that half might actually veer into potential libel territory, as it would be an accusation that the other party is engaged in criminal activity rather than just a matter of opinion on their character.

Thad (profile) says:

There was a lot of argument in the comments discussing the McInnes case that maybe the SPLC’s "hate group" designation really was defamation. The justifications for the claim seemed mostly to boil down to "because I don’t like the SPLC."

But defamation law is extremely clear; calling an organization a "hate group" is a protected opinion. It doesn’t matter whether you agree with that opinion or not. It doesn’t matter whether you like the defendant or not. It doesn’t matter whether you like the plaintiff or not. Opinions are protected speech; they are not defamatory. Not for nothin’, that’s exactly the same reason Shiva Ayyadurai’s lawsuit against Techdirt was meritless.

It was obvious, from the get-go, that this suit would be dismissed. And it has been obvious, from the get-go, that McInnes’s suit will be dismissed.

I hope that the people who defended the merit of McInnes’s suit (or Ayyadurai’s, or Nunes’s, or any of the myriad other meritless defamation suits Techdirt covers with some regularity) will think on this, and hopefully develop a better understanding of how defamation law works — if not now, then when McInnes’s suit is inevitably dismissed, too.

Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Well, the really amusing thing is that I can bet you that the vast majority of people who defend meritless defamation lawsuits undoubtedly insist that they’re defenders of "free speech" and complain about how "leftists" are trying to shut down free speech. None will admit that these lawsuits are actually designed to do that.

Qwertygiy says:

Re: Re:

This one statement covers all the doubts I had about the McInnes lawsuit:

Coral Ridge cannot prove the falsity of the “hate group” designation, given that, as the court has found, the designation is not provable as false. Logically speaking, a plaintiff cannot prove what is not provable.

There are a lot of unlikely (theoretically possible, but quite implausible) things that would have had to happen for McInnes’ lawsuit to have any merit, and "hate group" having a legal definition is the simplest to determine and was the most likely to have been in their favor.

Now, regardless of whether or not the Proud Boys do or do not fit the SPLC’s definition of "hate group", and whether or not they were harmed directly by being called a hate group, it doesn’t matter. It’s 100% not defamatory. "Hate group" has been defined by the court as a matter of opinion that cannot be proven false, and I see no reason that the ruling on the field would be overturned by another court.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Hmmh, my take on Shiva’s lawsuit was that Techdirt could show his various claims to be factually untrue by pointing to examples of prior art. He DID program an email client but he did NOT invent E-Mail cause all the work already had done by others.

Not to be glib, but your take misunderstands the nature of civil procedure and the nature of defamation lawsuits. If Techdirt had wanted to do what you claim, you’d probably be talking about the case going on for another 3 to 4 years of entirely unnecessary nonsense before getting to an actual trial, that would have probably been 5x the cost… just to hope that a jury of 12 random people agreed.

Getting a case kicked out by pointing out that a statement is incapable of being proven true or false is the only reasonable legal stance to take unless Techdirt was made of money (in which case it would likely be getting sued more often).

Thad (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Your take is wrong.

From the judge’s dismissal (Section III. B. 4 a, pp 16-18):

(1) Statements That Are Not Capable of Being Proved True or False

“[D]efamatory statements are not punishable unless they are capable of being proved true or false.” Pan Am Sys., 804 F.3d at 65. The statements here are not capable of being so proved.

First, by its nature, the question of who invented e-mail is not subject to one, and only one, “true” answer. The answer depends upon how “e-mail” itself is defined. Plaintiff defines “e-mail” to include features such as an inbox, outbox, folders, a “to:” line, a “from:” line, a “subject:” line, the body of the message and the ability to include attachments, and the ability to copy (“cc”) or blind copy (“bcc”) other recipients. (See Compl. ¶ 13). However, that is not the only definition. For example, the online Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “e-mail” in far more general terms as “a means or system for transmitting messages electronically (as between two computers on a network.” E-mail, MERRIAM-WEBSTER, https://www.merriamwebster.com/dictionary/e-mail (last visited Aug. 31, 2017). Similarly, in the context of a patent dispute, the Federal Circuit has held that “a person of ordinary skill in the art would have recognized that an electronic mail message must include a destination address and must have the capacity to include an address of an originating processor, message content (such as text or an attachment), and a subject.” In re NTP, Inc., 654 F.3d 1279, 1289 (Fed. Cir. 2011). Accordingly, whether plaintiff’s claim to have invented e-mail is “fake” depends upon the operative definition of “e-mail.” Because that definition does not have a single, objectively correct answer, the claim is incapable of being proved true or false.

Second, many of the statements at issue are incapable of being proved false by virtue of the language that they use. The First Circuit has held that whether something is a “fake” or a “phony” may be “unprovable, since those adjectives admit of numerous interpretations.” Phantom Touring, Inc. v. Affiliated Publ’ns, 953 F.2d 724 728 (1st Cir. 1992); accord Levinsky’s, 127 F.3d at 129-130 (holding that use of the word “trashy” to describe a clothing store is not actionable, and stating that “[t]he vaguer a term, or the more meanings it reasonably can convey, the less likely it is to be actionable”).[7] Similarly, in McCabe, the First Circuit held that because “the word ‘scam’ does not have a precise meaning[,] . . . the assertion “X is a scam” [is] incapable of being proved true or false.” McCabe v. Rattiner, 814 F.2d 839, 842 (1st Cir. 1987). There, an article referred to a timeshare resort development owned by the plaintiff as a “scam.” Id. at 840-41. In holding that the use of the word was not actionable, the court explained:

Rattiner extensively and accurately described his encounter with the resort salespeople, thereby disclosing the basis for his assertion that it was a scam. Readers may have disagreed with the conclusion that it was a scam, but they could not have said that the conclusion was false, because there is no core meaning of scam to which Rattiner’s facts and allegations can be compared. Is it a scam to promise a lobster dinner and then only give it after protest? Is it a scam to gross approximately $9 million from a 25 unit resort? The answer depends on the meaning given to the word “scam.”

Id. at 843.

Here, even a reader who agrees with defendants’ view that plaintiff should not be credited as the sole inventor of e-mail may not agree that his claim is “fake” or “bogus.” One person may consider a claim to be “fake” if any element of it is not true or if it involves a slight twisting of the facts, while another person may only consider a claim to be “fake” only if no element of it is true. Thus, whether statements such as “Dr. Ayyadurai is perpetuating a ‘fake story’ with respect to his claims of invention of email,” (Compl. ¶ 34(c)), are provably true or false depends not only on how one defines “e-mail,” but also on how one defines “fake.” Because both terms, in this context, are imprecise, the statements are not actionable.

[7] Whether words like “fake” or “phony” are imprecise is context-dependent. See Gray, 221 F.3d at 248-49 (“Whether calling something a ‘fake’ is or is not protected opinion depends very much on what is meant and therefore on context.”). “To say that a dollar bill is a fake would, in most situations (but perhaps not all), be taken to mean that it was a counterfeit; and to say that the defendant was knowingly passing a fake dollar bill would surely be actionable, if false. At the other extreme, where there were two productions of Phantom of the Opera, and the defendant called one of them ‘fake’ and ‘phony,’ this court held that the adjectives were subjective aesthetic judgments protected as opinion.” Id. at 249 (citing Phantom Touring, 953 F.2d at 728). In the context of this case, the imprecision inherent in words like “fake” is dependent upon the imprecision in the definition of “e-mail” itself, and the resulting ambiguity as to who “invented” e-mail.

That One Guy (profile) says:

'Only WE are allowed to denigrate others!'

The First Amendment protects a lot of speech people wish it wouldn’t. It protects Coral Ridge’s anti-LGBTQ statements — ones that include calling homosexuality "vile," "lawless," and "an abomination."

But it does this while presenting itself as a fierce free speech advocate being unfairly targeted by hate speech law proposals.

Gotta love the blatant dishonesty and hypocrisy here, where the same people slinging much worse labels than ‘hate group’ are throwing a fit when someone returns the favor with a comparatively much tamer label based upon what they choose to do rather than are.

They aren’t an advocate of ‘free speech’, they’re only an advocate of speech they like.

Stephen T. Stone (profile) says:

Re:

Except no, that’s not how things work. A plaintiff in a defamation lawsuit generally must prove the defendant…

  • expressed an unprivileged, false statement of fact about the plaintiff;
  • caused material harm to the plaintiff by expressing that false statement of fact; and
  • acted either negligently or with actual malice

…to even have a shot at winning the case. And if the plaintiff is deemed a "public figure" (which Coral Ridge undoubtedly is), the standard of actual malice must be met. That means the plaintiff must proved the defendant lied, on purpose, with the intent to injure the plaintiff.

SPLC won the suit brought by Coral Ridge because the “hate group” label was deemed an opinion, not a statement of fact. Even if SPLC acted with the intent to injure Coral Ridge, it did so by stating an opinion. (Said opinion was backed by Coral Ridge’s own words, by the by.) It’s little different than someone saying “[popular piece of media] sucked”: The opinion may cause fewer people to buy that piece of media or do business with its publisher, but that doesn’t make the opinion defamatory.

bhull242 (profile) says:

Re: As we've learned, they just need to prove a lost of money.

I think you’re saying that, all too often, the person who can afford the lawsuit is the one who wins. I actually agree with that, which is why we need a robust federal anti-SLAPP law and better protections against false copyright claims. I’m just not sure what that has to do with this case.

David says:

Sure about that?

The SPLC’s "hate group" work is, at best, questionable. But it’s still protected speech, even if it results in adverse outcomes for those it designates as hateful. The best response is more speech, not lawsuits that threaten the protections the plaintiffs benefit from each and every day.

Frankly I have serious doubts that "more speech" from the "Proud Boys" is their best pitch at showing that they are not properly labeled a "hate group".

Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Sure about that?

I suspect that ‘The Proud Boys" will take all the rope they need without anyone actually providing it. What is more important is whether that rope is given more exposure than it deserves or if it is burned from one end to the other by more pragmatic heads. Faux news insensitive racist, sexist, morons should not be given a louder voice, though this is overcome only by sensible, respectable (if they exist) talking heads that speak more, rather than less.

While I am not a fan of ‘wokeness’, I am a fan of tolerance. The overly sensitive seem to think any form of unwokeness is a hanging offence (with or without proof). I am more in favor of the proof routine, along with the innocent until proven guilty, in a court of law.

Johnny Kombs says:

When you white it’s illegal to be a racist

Black people can say all the anti white shit that want at jobs, at events, etc and if you say to them anything back, even stop being racist towards white people then your the racist. Whites which sadly are not the proud boys have to join there organization that only include there people and continue the lawsuits against the SPLC and the Goyin (WHITE CHRISTIAN) hating ADL. We must continue to file lawsuits and help Trump elect judges that support are white cause. Hopefully one day all the illegals will be exterminated by strong white men who will do what needs to be done.

Ed U. Kashun says:

Take a proper gander out of your propaganda bubble:

As Fundraising Shoots Up, Lawsuits Threaten Southern Poverty Law Center

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.

SO Techdirt supports false charges hampering sports AND drug treatment, heedless as usual of "collateral damage" when suits your agenda.

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 Nation [NOT a "conservative] magazine that "No one has been more assiduous in inflating the profile of [hate] groups" than the center’s founder, Morris Dees.

https://www.theepochtimes.com/as-fundraising-shoots-up-lawsuits-threaten-southern-poverty-law-center_3097882.html

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