This piece originally appeared in The Federalist on July 13, 2023.
The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) recently added two grassroots groups, Moms for Liberty and Parents Defending Education, to its “hate map,” labeling them “antigovernment” for daring to disagree with the SPLC’s political beliefs.
In their Wall Street Journal op-ed condemning their inclusion on the list, Moms for Liberty founders Tiffany Justice and Tina Descovich say they were targeted because SPLC wants them to “sit down and shut up.”
They are right. Labels like “antigovernment,” “radical,” and “domestic extremist” are increasingly weaponized against ideological adversaries. Instead of debating the merits of ideas, it is easier to tar and feather speakers. It’s a cheap, lazy tactic designed to intimidate and silence disfavored groups to prevent them from exercising their First Amendment rights. Anyone who cares about free speech should ignore characterizations that make routine political disagreements seem “dangerous” and worthy of government attention.
Unfortunately, the federal government is listening to voices that employ these speech-squashing tactics. According to the Washington Free Beacon, the SPLC researcher responsible for the “hate map” met with Biden’s National Security Council officials earlier this year.
We’ve seen this move before: An organization targets Americans based on viewpoint, then high-ranking officials act in response to that organization’s claims, thereby creating a negative feedback loop threatening First Amendment rights for everyone.
It wasn’t even a year ago that a Republican House Judiciary Committee report detailed how the FBI Counterterrorism Division set up a special “threat tag” to track school board-related cases shortly after the National School Boards Association (NSBA) urged President Joe Biden to use the Patriot Act against American parents. The NSBA letter cited numerous instances of protected speech as examples of threats it wanted the Biden administration to address. These examples included things like parents expressing anger at school boards, and a man who referred to himself as “the vaccine police” and called school administrators during a Facebook Live video.
The report points to the FBI opening an investigation into one mom for allegedly telling a local school board, “We are coming for you.” The complaint alleged the mom was a threat because she belonged to a “right-wing mom’s [sic] group” known as “Moms for Liberty” and that she is a “gun owner.”
When an FBI agent interviewed the mom, she told the agent she was upset about the school board’s mask mandates, and that her statement was a warning that her organization would seek to replace the school board by voting them out of office. What horror!
Government officials should be humiliated that they subject Americans to this kind of scrutiny for engaging in protected speech. But they must have painfully short memories.
May marked a decade since the Internal Revenue Service admitted to inappropriately targeting right-leaning nonprofit groups, validating conservatives’ fears of IRS political bias. Lois Lerner, the director of the IRS division overseeing tax-exempt groups, “created unprecedented roadblocks for Tea Party organizations, worked surreptitiously to advance new Obama administration regulations that curtail the activities of existing 501(c)(4) organizations — all the while attempting to maintain an appearance that her efforts did not appear, in her own words, ‘per se political,’” according to a 2014 report.
Unfortunately, in the 10 years since that scandal, little has changed to prevent government at all levels from identifying, targeting, and punishing those who engage in “disfavored” political speech. Instead, as it turns out, government abusing its power to chill the speech of ideological foes is more of a feature than a bug.
Whether the Lerner scandal or more recent headlines about improper conduct at the CIA and Department of Justice, or even the Durham report, we have seen example after example of political targeting of ideological opponents — and protection of ideological allies. This reprehensible phenomenon continues to damage the political speech rights of a wide swath of Americans.
A recently revealed Department of Homeland Security memo uncovered by America First Legal profiled a “middle-aged pro-life advocate” and “budding conspiracy theorist” as two examples of “radicalization suspects” worthy of intervention. While DHS claims the document was provided by an outside contractor “exploring options for a training product that was not further produced, approved, or used by DHS,” civil liberties advocates are rightly on guard about the potential threat to protected First Amendment activity.
A November 2021 lawsuit on behalf of a Florida Moms for Liberty chapter challenged the Brevard County School District’s public participation policy and detailed how the board repeatedly violated their right to speak at public meetings. Brevard Moms for Liberty is represented by the Institute for Free Speech, a nonpartisan First Amendment advocacy organization.
The board president regularly opened meetings by threatening attendees with criminal sanctions for disruption and has interrupted speakers for criticizing the board’s policies as “evil.” When parents attempted to criticize the district’s mask mandate, one board member showed frustration that the speech was even allowed: “Enough is enough. We shouldn’t be talking about [masks] anymore. … I personally believe we should not be allowing the spread of disinformation. So when we come to a public comment and we continue to make points that masks are not effective, my response will be, we shouldn’t be talking about this anymore.”
In February 2023, a federal judge granted Brevard’s motion for summary judgment. In April, attorneys for Moms for Liberty appealed. The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression and the Manhattan Institute have filed a joint amicus brief in support of Moms for Liberty, along with other groups and 10 states.
This case, the SPLC “hate map,” and the IRS targeting scandal of a decade ago highlight the potential for suppression of speech at all levels of government.
After celebrating our nation’s independence last week, we should remember that the First Amendment distinguishes this country from all others. It’s part of what makes us a beacon of hope for the world. We must be vigilant against all attacks on the First Amendment and protect a culture of free speech for ourselves and generations to come.