The Center for Immigration Studies, one of the country’s most visible anti-immigration groups, has taken its feud with a nonprofit civil rights organization to court, alleging that its inclusion on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s list of known hate groups violates a federal law originally passed to target the mob.
“SPLC and its leaders have every right to oppose our work on immigration, but they do not have the right to label us a hate group and suggest we are racists,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of Center for Immigration Studies. “The Center for Immigration Studies is fighting back against the SPLC smear campaign and its attempt to stifle debate through intimidation and name-calling.”
In the complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, the Center for Immigration Studies alleges that the group’s inclusion on SPLC’s list amounts to wire fraud, and that it has cost CIS at least $10,000 in material damages. The complaint also alleges that the purported fraud violates the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, commonly known as RICO, a federal law originally written to target organized crime but now most frequently used to sue businesses over false statements transmitted through the mail or electronically.
“This is a scheme to falsely call CIS a hate group,” Howard Foster, the Center for Immigration Studies’ attorney, told The Daily Beast. “They’re never going to stop attacking CIS as a hate group.”
The complaint, filed on Wednesday morning, alleges that the SPLC has maintained the group’s presence on its list of hate groups “despite the Defendants’ knowledge that CIS did not fit SPLC’s ‘hategroup definition.’” Naming Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, and Heidi Beirich—who oversees the SPLC’s annual survey of U.S. hate groups—the group seeks financial damages and an injunction to bar the SPLC “from further racketeering activity.”
“CIS regularly opposes higher levels of immigration for sound public policy reasons, not because of any animus toward immigrants as human beings,” the group said in a release. “CIS hopes this lawsuit will cause Mr. Cohen and Ms. Beirich to turn their attention to actual cases of racial animus.”
Despite its fiery language, experts on RICO told The Daily Beast that CIS’s complaint may not hold much legal water.
“There are pretty big issues with this complaint,” said Jeffrey E. Grell, an attorney and expert on racketeering law. “This basically all hinges on them being called a hate group by the SPLC… but an opinion isn’t fraudulent.”
“It’s just kinda goofy,” Grell continued. “I don’t think it has a lot of merit, mostly because I dont think it’s fraud… The Southern Poverty Law Center doesn’t say that [its definition] is the only basis by which you can be defined as a hate group.”
“There’s so much garbage that gets filed under RICO,” Grell added. “If I was a judge, I would dismiss it.”
Even the lawyer who wrote the statute told The Daily Beast that the complaint is “slim on details,” particularly for a RICO suit.
“A quick read says one thing: they are in D.C. asking for damages and an injunction. RICO is not generally thought to contain equity relief,” said Professor G. Robert Blakey, a law professor at Notre Dame Law School and the literal author of the Organized Crime Control Act of 1970, which includes RICO. “Not too thoughtful.”
The SPLC has included CIS in its watch list of hate groups since 2016, following what it called the group’s “repeated circulation of white nationalist and antisemitic writers.”
“It has a history of making racially inflammatory statements, associating with white nationalists, and circulating the work of racist writers,” Cohen told The Daily Beast. “Its lawsuit is nothing more than a heavy-handed effort to try to silence us from exercising our First Amendment right to express our opinion. We look forward to defending ourselves in court.”
But the Center for Immigration Studies alleges that it doesn’t fit the SPLC’s stated definition of a hate group, which is described as “an organization that—has beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people, typically for their immutable characteristics.”
“SPLC knows that CIS is not a hate group, by its own definition, yet it calls it a hate group,” Foster said.