On Wednesday, Liberty Counsel filed a federal lawsuit against GuideStar over the group’s decision to designate Liberty Counsel as a “hate group” on their website. The lawsuit charges that GuideStar’s actions violated the Lanham Act, a federal statute that prohibits false and misleading statements that create harm for businesses or organizations. GuideStar is also charged with state law violations of Interference with Business Expectancy and Defamation. Liberty Counsel is seeking a permanent injunction, damages, and attorney’s fees and costs.
“We want to stop the lies because this kind of reporting is defamatory, it’s reckless, and it’s dangerous,” said Mat Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel.
Liberty Counsel is an international nonprofit, litigation, education, and policy organization whose mission is to advance pro-life, pro-marriage, and religious liberty public policy. In 2015 the organization made international news when it represented Kim Davis, a Kentucky country clerk who refused to comply with a federal court order directing her to issue same-sex marriage licenses.
Wednesday’s lawsuit comes after Liberty Counsel, along with 45 other conservative organizations, was designated as a “hate group” on GuideStar’s website. Although GuideStar has since removed the moniker, they said they would continue to provide the “hate group” information upon request. GuideStar advertises itself as the world’s largest source of information on nonprofit organizations and provides information about mission, legitimacy, reputation, finances, transparency and governance to potential big-time donors.
According to GuideStar CEO Jacob Harold, the criteria used to label conservative organizations with the undesirable designation was “the fact that they had been designated as hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC).” Thus, based solely on the SPLC’s recommendation, leading pro-family groups such as Liberty Counsel, Alliance Defending Freedom, the American Family Association, and the Family Research Council were labeled “hate groups.” GuideStar purports to monitor 1,684,038 nonprofit organizations, but chose to only characterize 46 (mostly Christian conservative organizations) as “hateful.”
Although GuideStar claims to be nonpartisan, relying on the SPLC betrays a liberal bias. In fact, even liberal commentators have noted the SPLC’s longstanding animus toward conservatives groups. Alexander Cockburn (a noted liberal), recently described the SPLC leaders as the “archsalesmen of hatemongering.” The Foreign Policy Magazine also concluded that the SPLC’s method for designating groups as “hate groups” is flawed because they are not objective.
Further, SPLC has been linked to the 2012 attempted murder at the Washington, D.C. office of the Family Research Council. The gunman, Floyd Corkins II admitted to the FBI that he was motivated by the “Hate Map” on the SPLC website that listed the Family Research Council as a “hate group.”
Given the SPLC’s reputation, GuideStar’s decision to partner with them raises questions. Although CEO Jacob Harold recently stated that “GuideStar does not engage in partisan politics,” the facts suggest otherwise. Putting aside Mr. Harold’s own liberal political activism (Harold served as host for a NARAL pro-abortion men’s event in 2014, donated to the Obama campaign in 2011, and has written extensively on climate change), GuideStar has admitted that there are “legitimate critiques of SPLC’s analysis” and that the SPLC has been accused of political bias. Further, SPLC leadership has been quite clear about their organization’s objective. Mark Potok, Senior Fellow at SPLC, who has been with the organization since 1997 admitted once in an interview, “Our criteria for a ‘hate group,’ first of all, have nothing to do with criminality or violence or any kind… It’s strictly ideological.” He added, “I want to say plainly that our aim in life is to destroy these groups, to completely destroy them.”
“Despite serious concerns about the false labeling by the SPLC, GuideStar has used this harmful rhetoric for the purpose of causing financial and reputational injury to Liberty Counsel and other nonprofit organizations, said Staver. “GuideStar is playing with fire. There are unhinged people who have relied upon this reckless rhetoric to threaten and even cause physical harm and death because a person or organization was falsely labeled as a ‘hater’ or ‘hate group’ This is not a game.”
In response to the lawsuit, SPLC President Richard Cohen remained defiant, saying, “We stand ready to support our designation of Liberty Counsel as a hate group. Liberty Counsel is a group that has consistently called LGBT people ‘immoral, unnatural and self-destructive.’ It has a track record of attempting to criminalize homosexual conduct and to legalize discrimination against the LGBT community.”