Charity watchdog database GuideStar is being sued for posting annotations flagging 46 organizations as hate groups as defined by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). Leadership at the Williamsburg, Va.-based service announced on Tuesday that the annotations would be removed — at least temporarily — from the site this week.
The move was too little too late, according to Mathew Staver, founder and chairman of the Liberty Counsel, one of the flagged organizations.
The suit filed in United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, alleges violation of the federal Lanham Act – which deals with trademark protection – and Virginia common law defamation and interference with business expectancy. Damages include that of the organization’s reputation – citing media reports and GuideStar’s Wikipedia page which have covered the annotations – and harm to its ability to attract donations.
Liberty Counsel seeks, among other things, a permanent injunction against GuideStar relating to the annotations; actual, compensatory, and punitive monetary damages; and attorney’s fees.
A GuideStar representative told The NonProfit Times in an email that the organization will not be commenting on the lawsuit at this time. SPLC doubled-down on its characterization of Liberty Counsel via a statement on the organization’s website. The statement alleges that Liberty Counsel has a reputation of seeking to criminalize homosexual conduct and legalize discrimination against members of the LGBTQ community.
“There is nothing ‘pro-family’ about dehumanizing LGBT people,” the statement reads. “This lawsuit and other recent attacks against GuideStar are simply attempts to distract the public from Liberty Counsel’s hateful agenda.”
Staver said that 41 organizations signed a letter urging GuideStar to remove the annotations and that Liberty Counsel leadership took issue with GuideStar leadership’s decision to just temporarily remove the flags, to not retract the designations, and to continue offering the information to inquiring parties.
GuideStar leadership, as reported, decided to remove the annotations for the time being after reportedly receiving threats but has still been willing to provide the 46-organization list to interested parties via email.
“GuideStar has therefore neither abandoned, nor retracted, nor remedied its defamatory publications regarding Liberty Counsel,” the lawsuit reads. “Instead, it has made those defamatory publications worse, by falsely implying that Liberty Counsel and other so-called ‘hate groups’ are now threatening or causing others to threaten violence against GuideStar.”
The complaint further describes SPLC as reckless for lumping Christian organizations such as Liberty Counsel with neo-Nazis and other groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and quotes senior fellow Mark Potok as saying that SPLC does not seek to monitor “hate groups,” but destroy them. The complaint also makes reference of Jacob Harold’s, president and CEO of GuideStar, Twitter page and biography on the GuideStar website. The biography shows Harold’s devotion to “liberal” causes such as Greenpeace USA and the Twitter account depicts support for pro-abortion organizations and LGBTQ rights, per the complaint.
“Mr. Herald [sic] and GuideStar’s shared political ideology with the SPLC seeks to diminish the opposing viewpoints and positions advanced by Liberty Counsel, namely religious liberty, the sanctity of human life, human sexuality, and family values,” the complaint states.
The online age means that once defamatory material has been published, it cannot be taken back, Staver said. He added that the Orlando, Fla.-based organization has seen lost donation opportunities such as corporations refusing to match gifts made by employees to Liberty Counsel. Beyond lost donation opportunities, Staver claimed that the annotations placed members of the organization in physical danger – citing acts of violence perpetrated against conservative groups and individual such as the 2012 shooting at the Family Research Council’s headquarters and the June 14 shooting at a Congressional baseball practice that seriously injured Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA).
“These are not games that we are playing,” Staver said. “These are situations that put people’s lives at risk by harm or even death by people who are unhinged and rely on these false labels.” Staver added that the only way to put to bed the label of “hate group” would be to change the organization’s stance on issues important to leadership such as marriage, sexuality, and abortion.
Nothing has yet been scheduled with the district court since the filing on Wednesday, according to Staver, and that GuideStar representatives should be served no later than today. Co-plaintiffs were not added as the goal was to file the suit as quickly as possible. Staver said that he plans to have Liberty Counsel representatives reach out to colleagues at other flagged organizations after the holiday weekend.
“We are certainly happy to add on plaintiffs,” he said. “We’re certainly willing to do that. [They have] been injured just as much as Liberty Counsel. We may well do that.”