Monday, August 20, 2012
False Speech Does Not a Hate Group Make
The Supreme Court invoked the spirit of James Madison in 1964 when it established constitutional limits on libel suits in the landmark decision New York Times v. Sullivan. “Some degree of abuse is inseparable from the proper use of everything,” Madison wrote. Citing Madison, the court went on to observe that “erroneous statement is inevitable in free debate” and must be protected if freedom of expression is to have the “breathing space” it needs to survive.   The court’s bow to false speech bears on the debate last week over the designation of the anti-gay Family Research Council (FRC) as a “hate group” by the self-appointed monitor of hate groups, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). The Montgomery, Ala.-based legal advocacy group first listed the FRC as a hate group in December 2010. Gay rights advocates have been quick ever since to cite the listing to discredit the FRC’s various anti-gay stands.   The listing became a topic of national debate last week after a Virginia man who had volunteered at the Washington, D.C., LGBT community center was charged with shooting the security guard at the FRC’s headquarters in downtown Washington [Aug. 15]. Floyd Lee Corkins allegedly shouted, “I don’t like your politics,” immediately before firing at the guard, Leonardo Johnson. Corkins is facing a charge of assault with intent to commit murder; Johnson, wounded once in the arm, is reported to be recovering well.   Gay rights organizations quickly denounced the shooting. But the next day the council’s president, Tony Perkins, moved to take advantage of the incident by calling a news conference to blame the shooting on the SPLC’s designation of the council as a hate group. “I believe the Southern Poverty Law Center should be held accountable for their reckless use of terminology,” Perkins told reporters.   The center responded by defending its listing of the council as a hate group based on what senior fellow Mark Potok called the FRC’s “false and denigrating propaganda about LGBT people.” Blaming the center for the shooting was “outrageous,” Potok said. “The FRC and its allies on the religious right are saying, in effect, that offering legitimate and fact-based criticism in a democratic society is tantamount to suggesting that the objects of criticism should be the targets of criminal violence,” he wrote.   The FRC was one of 13 anti-gay organizations designated as hate groups by the SPLC in an “intelligence report” published in December 2010. The center said the designation was based on the groups’ “propagation of known falsehoods . . . and repeated, groundless name-calling,” not on religious objections to homosexuality. Five anti-gay groups studied were not included in the designation. The designation was controversial from the outset. The FRC responded with a newspaper ad criticizing the listing co-signed by 22 members of Congress, including the then House Speaker-designate John Boehner.   More broadly, the SPLC’s hate-group monitoring has itself been controversial for many years even as news organizations routinely use it as a source and treat the center’s periodic reports as reliable barometers of hate group activity. One leading critic is Ken Silverstein, Washington editor of Harper’s magazine. Silverstein wrote a stinging critique in 2000 that depicted the hate-group monitoring mainly as “a relentless fund-raising campaign.”   In a panel discussion a decade later, Silverstein repeated his criticism. The center “has a habit of casually labeling organizations as ‘hate groups,’” Silverstein said in a panel in March 2010 convened by the Center for Immigration Studies after the anti-immigrant group had come under SPLC’s microscope as a hate group. “In doing so,” Silverstein continued, “the SPLC shuts down debate, stifles free speech, and, most of all, raises a pile of money, very little of which is used on behalf of poor people.”   Today, the SPLC lists 1,018 hate groups active in the United States, identified by name on an interactive map with a short description of the group’s ideology (“racist,” “skinhead,” “black separatist,” “anti-gay,” etc.). For the casual reader or listener, the designation may conjure up pictures of violence and intimidation: cross burnings or worse. But the center’s fine-print definition cautions otherwise: “Listing here does not imply a group advocates or engages in violence or other criminal activity.”   In fact, the intelligence report on the FRC in December 2010 includes no suggestion that the council advocates or engages in any violence or criminal activity. The 800-word entry says the council has been “a font of anti-gay propaganda” since its founding in 1983. The pastiche of evidence includes what the entry labels as “false accusations linking gay men to pedophilia” made by “senior research fellows” Tim Dailey and Peter Spring in various forums over the years. Also noted were Sprigg’s recent statements that he favored criminalizing homosexual behavior and that the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” would likely result in assaults by gay service members on straights.   LGBT groups and their straight allies have good reason to find these views offensive. And the center rightly notes that the research claimed to support the anti-gay statements has been discounted or contradicted by mainstream scientific organizations. But the SPLC’s designation of the FRC as a “hate group” does more than register disapproval or disagreement. It seeks to completely delegitimize the organization and exclude it from public debates. In those debates, the Supreme Court tells us, even false speech has a place if freedom of expression is to be preserved.