Marietta immigration activist suing SPLC over 'hate group' designation

Hunter Riggall, Marietta Daily Journal, Ga.

Thu, April 27, 2023 at 6:37 PM EDT

Apr. 27—A federal judge has ruled that a defamation suit filed by a Marietta-based immigration activist against the Southern Poverty Law Center can proceed.

D.A. King, the founder and leader of the Dustin Inman Society, is suing the Southern Poverty Law Center over its designation of his organization as an "anti-immigrant hate group."

The Dustin Inman Society advocates for tougher enforcement of immigration laws and on its website states that it "believe(s) the fundamental duty of the federal government is to enforce federal laws, to secure American borders and protect the American people from unauthorized and uninspected border crossings."

The group is named for Dustin Inman, a Georgia teenager killed in a car crash — law enforcement said the crash was caused
by an immigrant living in the country illegally.

The group says it does not oppose legal immigration and that its board includes legal immigrants.

The SPLC, meanwhile, alleges on its website that the Dustin Inman Society "poses as an organization concerned about immigration issues, yet focuses on vilifying all immigrants."

According to the suit, the SPLC first designated the Dustin Inman Society as a hate group in 2018. In 2011, an SPLC representative told the Associated Press they had not labeled it a hate group since its tactics have "generally not been to get up in the face of actual immigrants and threaten them," and has rather been "working on ... legislation through the political process."

King and his group charge that the SPLC added the hate group designation to destroy his group's reputation, foil their attempts to influence legislation and increase SPLC fundraising. He points to the timing of the designation, around the same time the Georgia General Assembly was considering immigration enforcement legislation.

The Dustin Inman Society also argues that its activities did not substantively change between 2011 and 2018.

The Montgomery-based SPLC asked Judge Keith Watkins of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama to dismiss the suit, arguing, among other things, that its hate group designation is an opinion protected under the First Amendment.
Watkins, an appointee of President George W. Bush, disagreed.

"The allegations about SPLC's portrayal of its elite status in tracking and investigating hate groups and its specialized knowledge make it plausible that a reasonable reader would discern that, when SPLC designates a group an 'anti-immigrant hate group," the designation is factually based after extensive investigation," Watkins wrote.

Watkins added that the SPLC's writings about the Dustin Inman Society "more closely resemble a fact-based periodical rather than an opinion column."
To win the suit, King and his group will have to prove that SPLC made the designation with "actual malice" — that the SPLC knew the designation was false, or made the decision with "reckless disregard" for the truth.

Of King's assertions about the SPLC, Watkins writes, "While none of these allegations would suffice on their own to show actual malice, cumulatively, Plaintiffs' claims are plausible."

The suit can now move forward to the discovery phase, where the parties can gather evidence by subpoenaing documents and records, and taking depositions.

That process could provide more information about how the SPLC decides to designate "hate groups."

The SPLC did not reply to a request for comment by press time.

In a statement on the Dustin Inman Society website, King wrote that Watkin's denial of the SPLC's request to dismiss the suit was " the first step toward justice for the majority of Americans who demand the right to speak up against the organized crime that is illegal immigration without being smeared and attacked."