Christian ministry appeals SPLC case to Supreme Court, challenging NYT v. Sullivan

Warning of bloodshed with new map of Confederate monuments

The Southern Poverty Law Center has warned of ‘turmoil’ with new map identifying Confederate monuments, cities and middle schools. But is SPLC also part of the problem? #Tucker

FIRST ON FOX: The Christian ministry D. James Kennedy Ministries (DJKM) has asked the Supreme Court to revisit its landmark defamation ruling in New York Times v. Sullivan (1964), appealing its case against the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which has branded DJKM a “hate group.”

“New York Times v. Sullivan, which is at the heart of our defamation suit against the SPLC, may have once sought to advance noble purposes, but the practical effect has been devastating to equal treatment under the law,” DJKM President Frank Wright told Fox News on Wednesday. “Today Times v. Sullivan is little more than a vehicle to enable reputational terrorism while avoiding the legal consequences of defamation law faced by every other American citizen.”

Critics say the SPLC brands mainstream conservative and Christian organizations “hate groups,” placing them on a list with truly hateful organizations like the Ku Klux Klan. The SPLC has branded DJKM an “anti-LGBT hate group” due to its Bible-based statements on homosexuality, and Amazon uses the SPLC “hate group” list to determine eligibility for its Amazon Smile charity program. In 2017, DJKM sued the SPLC and Amazon for defamation and discrimination.

Courts have tossed DJKM’s lawsuit, however, ruling that the ministry has not met the “actual malice” standard for defamation that the Supreme Court invented in New York Times v. Sullivan. Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch have called for the court to revisit that precedent and the “actual malice” standard, specifically. DJKM’s petition for certiorari, which asks the court to take up the case, focuses on that standard.

The Southern Poverty Law Center’s 2020 map of "hate groups."
(Southern Poverty Law Center)

“This Court’s ‘actual-malice’ standard, invented for a particular time and a particular purpose, has become obsolete and does not serve any of the interests it was designed to protect,” the document reads. DJKM claims that the standard is “fundamentally untethered from the original understanding of the First Amendment.”

“Today, Sullivan no longer acts as a bulwark to protect civil rights,” the filing claims. “Instead of the shield it was designed to be, it is now a sword used to bludgeon public figures with impunity while hiding behind this Court’s mistaken view of the First Amendment.”

“It is tragically wrong to deny a ministry its day in court when it is publicly maligned,” David Gibbs III, counsel for DJKM, told Fox News on Wednesday. “The 1964 Sullivan ruling was intended to protect national media when there was no public internet or social media. This is the perfect moment for the Court to reconsider that legal standard in light of today’s technology. Greater accountability will increase civility and journalistic integrity.”

The document notes that “nearly a dozen” members of the court have questioned various aspects of Sullivan. In 2019, Justice Thomas criticized the ruling as a “policy-driven decision… masquerading as constitutional law.” Earlier this year, Justice Gorsuch noted that the media ecosystem has fundamentally transformed since 1964, making the actual-malice standard obsolete.

The document also cites Justice Elena Kagan, who said the actual-malice standard “allows grievous reputational injury to occur without monetary compensation or any other effective remedy.” 

It also cites a 1985 memo from John Roberts, two decades before he became chief justice on the court. “My own personal view is that a legislative trade-off relaxing the requirements for public figures to prevail (a return to the pre-Sullivan standards) in exchange for eliminating punitive damages would strike the· balance about right,” he wrote at the time.

It takes four justices to grant certiorari.

Frank Wright, president of D. James Kennedy Ministries
(D. James Kennedy Ministries)

Gibbs told Fox News in August that this “case is the perfect case to overturn the actual-malice standard” because it involves “an organization based on truth and love” being “called a hate group.”

Critics and former staffers have claimed that the SPLC uses the “hate group” label to target political opponents and to exaggerate hate in a fundraising scheme. A former SPLC spokesman said, “our aim in life is to destroy these groups.” A would-be murderer who targeted the Family Research Council (FRC) in Washington, D.C., aiming to kill its staffers, cited the SPLC’s “hate group” map for his decision to target FRC. The SPLC condemned the attack, but kept FRC on the map.

While courts have ruled against DJKM, one recent defamation lawsuit against the SPLC succeeded. The SPLC accused Maajid Nawaz, an anti-terror Muslim reformer, of being an “anti-Muslim extremist.” Nawaz sued and the SPLC settled, offering a very public apology and paying $3.375 million to his nonprofit.

Megan Meier, a partner at Clare Locke, the law firm that represented Nawaz, previously said “the SPLC’s ‘hate group’ accusation is a financial and reputational death sentence, effectively equating organizations to the KKK. No right-thinking person wants to be associated with the KKK, so the SPLC’s ‘hate group’ accusation is incredibly effective at shaming organizations and causing them to be shunned by donors, fundraising platforms, service providers, the media and others. Shaming and shunning are hallmarks of what makes a statement ‘defamatory’ under the common law.”

Richard Cohen, the head of the Southern Poverty Law Center, on March 22, 2019, announced his resignation to staff. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

“To put this designation in context, SPLC associated the Ministry with real hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan, white nationalists, and the neo-Nazi movement – groups that have been associated with and have well-documented histories of horrific violence and true acts of hate,” the DJKM filing explains.

DJKM asks the court to “cabin” the actual-malice standard, “protecting free discourse regarding public officials, while not foreclosing the right of public figures to bring a claim for reputational harm caused by false statements.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center did not respond to Fox News’ request for comment.

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