A brief asks the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to reverse a district court’s dismissal of a lawsuit by Liberty Counsel against the charity-monitoring website Guidestar for smearing Christian non-profits with “hate group” designations based on mainstream religious views about marriage and sexuality.
WND reported in January when the lower court judge dismissed a lawsuit by Liberty Counsel over Guidestar’s promotion of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s designation of certain conservative organizations as “hate groups.”
Liberty Counsel sued after a label was placed on its GuideStar profile page stating the legal organization had been designated a hate group because it advocates traditional family values and opposes the gay-rights agenda.
Liberty Counsel argued the hate label was untrue and violated a federal law, the Lanham Act, against unfair competition and false advertising.
Judge Raymond Jackson of the federal district court in Norfolk rejected Liberty Counsel’s argument and the non-profit legal group is now appealing the ruling.
The decision to use SPLC’s “hate group” designation, Liberty Counsel said, was made even though Guidestar “admitted its knowledge that there ‘are legitimate critiques of SPLC’s analysis’ and that the SPLC has been accused of ‘political bias.'”
“Despite the criticisms and its admission that the SPLC’s ‘data’ is flawed, Guidestar proclaimed that it ‘intend[s] to continue using the SPLC as a data course,'” the appeal says.
“Guidestar’s admitted desire to include relevant ‘data’ (i.e., facts) from the SPLC’s ‘factual’ determinations concerning certain nonprofit organizations demonstrates that Guidestar wanted to ‘obtain [facts] on hate groups’ and that it ‘wanted to offer additional [facts].’ Guidestar’s use of the term ‘hate group’ as one element of purported ‘data’ is therefore a purported assertion of fact, not opinion,” the brief states.
Further, Guidestar has admitted “that it was keenly aware that its decision was political.”
“Now Guidestar has become a politically motivated organization using false, defamatory, and dangeros labels to harm nonprofit organizations, including Liberty Counsel, with which Guidestar and Mr. Herald disagree based on their different ideologies.”
And it was done with a monetary goal, the filing asserts.
Guidestar declined to respond to a WND request for comment.
“Guidestar’s representation of fact concerning Liberty Counsel as a ‘hate group’ is false, misleading, and deceitful to Liberty Counsel’s potential donors, and has the tendency to deceive all consumers of Guidestar’s commercially available website, including Liberty Counsel donors and potential donors,” the court is told.
“The damage caused by Guidestar’s false, misleading, and deceitful designation of Libety Counsel as a ‘hate group’ is also permanently etched in the history of Guidestar. Guidestar’s false, misleading, and deceitful designation of Liberty Counsel as a ‘hate group’ I snow spread throughout the media and the worldwide web.”
It continues: “Liberty Counsel has suffered, is suffering, and will continue to suffer damage to its reputation, good name, and standing with its donors and potential donors in the community of nonprofit organizations. Liberty Counsel has suffered actual damages in its ability to receive donations from donors and potential donors,” the filing states.
“Donors have relied upon Guidestar’s false and misleading ‘hate group’ designation to refuse, cease, or divert donations from the falsely designated groups. Such harm is ongoing.”
And the SPLC citation came in the context of commercial speech, meaning the the Lanham Act applies, Liberty Counsel contends.
“Guidestar’s profile of Liberty Counsel, including the false and misleading ‘hate group’ designation and its advertising and promotion of its paid services, specifically refer to Guidestar’s subscription services. Guidestar unquestionably had an economic motivation for its profile of Liberty Counsel and the adoption of the false and misleading ‘hate group’ designation.”
Mat Staver, founder of Liberty Counsel, said GuideStar “unlawfully used the false and harmful ‘hate group’ label to cause financial harm while promoting its own commercial interests.”
“Under the Lanham Act, GuideStar cannot make false and misleading characterizations of a group’s goods or services. GuideStar knows, or should have known, that this false label has resulted in financial harm. GuideStar must be held responsible for its actions,” Staver said.
The Lanham Act allows civil actions for damages from “any person” who believes he isinjured by someone who “uses in commerce any word, term, name, symbol, or device, or any combination thereof, or any false designation of origin, false or misleading description of fact, or false or misleading representation of fact.”
“Liberty Counsel’s allegations demonstrate that Guidestar’s profile of Liberty Counsel is commercial speech, and the district court’s decision to the contrary was in error,” the filing states.
“Here, Guidedstar has an economic motivation because it advertises and promotes its paid subscription services on Liberty Counsel’s profile, it has admitted that it based its decision to include the false and misleading ‘hate group’ designation on Liberty Counsel’s profile because of the financial motivations of its consumers, and it has a direct economic stake in the provision of its subscription services,” Liberty Counsel says.
In 2017, GuideStar began including a red-banner headline along with SPLC’s logo on 46 non-profit profiles, including Liberty Counsel, stating that Liberty Counsel had been designated a “hate group” by SPLC.
“GuideStar has admitted that it did no independent research on how the SPLC arrives at its false and defamatory designations. Guidestar also admitted that it was aware of the political bias of the SPLC and the significant criticisms of the SPLC label. Nevertheless, GuideStar adopted the false and defamatory ‘hate group’ designation and began indicating it on its profile of Liberty Counsel.”
In its original complaint, Liberty Counsel pointed out that SPLC hate designations already have been linked to two attempted mass murders: the 2012 attack on the Washington office of Family Research Council and the shooting last summer at a baseball practice for Republican lawmakers that severely injured Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La.
As WND reported, a related lawsuit regarding the hate labels was filed against SPLC by D. James Kennedy Ministries, founded by the late Presbyterian minister. Citing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the suit charges religious discrimination by “trafficking in false or misleading descriptions of the services offered under the ministry’s trademarked name” along with defamation and libel.