The Southern Poverty Law Center
Founded in 1971 by attorneys Morris Dees and Joe Levin, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) has been in the forefront of using the law to advance civil rights and fight racism and intolerance. In addition to filing - and winning - a number of important civil rights suits, the Center has been a pioneer in using the civil lawsuit as a means to disable hate groups.
By filing "wrongful death" suits against organizations like the Ku Klux Klan, the Center has been able to strip these organizations of their assets, and thereby destroy their effectiveness. In cases where a hate organization may not have been directly involved in a murder or act of violence, the Center has been able to show that it nonetheless was involved in the act by its advocacy of violence to those who actually committed it. The hate organizations have therefore been forced to pay damages to victims or their families. The Center doesn't stop at the courthouse door, however; it researches the organizations' assets so they can be seized, even if they've been cleverly hidden by accounting practices or transfers to sympathizers.
A case in point is one that played out in Portland, Oregon. In 1988, three young skinheads - members of a group called East Side White Pride - used a baseball bat to beat an Ethiopian student to death. The three were caught and convicted - that was the easy part. The important fact for SPLC, however, was that East Side White Pride was affiliated with a much larger and more powerful group called the White Aryan Resistance (WAR), based in California.
Tom Metzger, WAR's leader, trained young racists in techniques of violence and incitement, and then sent them out to other areas to train others in their turn. The Center's staff felt that they could make a significant contribution to curbing racist violence - as well as providing some justice to the family of the murder victim - by putting WAR out of business.
One of the three youths convicted in the case had, in fact, at 16 been recruited and trained by John Metzger, Tom Metzger's son and the leader of WAR Youth, and then dispatched to Portland to make contact with East Side White Pride. SPLC was even able to obtain the letter of introduction he brought from WAR to ease his acceptance into the Portland group. Another of the killers - the one who actually swung the bat - called Tom Metzger from jail after his arrest. There was enough evidence to pursue the Metzgers and WAR for their responsibility in the crime.
Using Oregon's existing wrongful death statute, the Center sued WAR on behalf of the murdered student's family. SPLC was able to demonstrate that, even though the Metzgers were 1,500 miles away at the time of the murder, and didn't know it was being committed, they nonetheless shared in responsibility for it as a result of their urging and training the ringleader to commit this sort of violent, hate-inspired act. By careful detective work, and by gaining the help of the ringleader, who gave evidence against his former mentors, The Center obtained a $12.5 million settlement for the Ethiopian student's family, and effectively put WAR out of business.
Morris Dees and Ellen Bowden, in an article about the lawsuit published on the SPLC website explain the point of this kind of legal action:
"Our goal in the Portland case and similar lawsuits has been to hold the leaders of hate groups responsible for the violent acts of their members. First, we aim to bankrupt the organizations or individuals responsible for hate crimes. Second, we seek to separate the footsoldiers from the leaders, whose combined charisma and intelligence make them less replaceable. Through these means, we hope not only to put hate groups themselves out of business, but to stop their leaders from encouraging so many youths to perpetrate hate violence."