Southern Poverty Law Center Fires Founder Morris Dees, Suggests Misconduct

PASADENA, CA - JANUARY 07: Founder, Southern Poverty Law Center, Morris Dees of "Hate in America" speaks onstage during the Discovery Communications TCA Winter 2016 at The Langham Huntington Hotel and Spa on January 7, 2016 in Pasadena, California. (Photo by Amanda Edwards/Getty Images for Discovery Communications)
Amanda Edwards/Getty Images for Discovery Communications

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), one of the country’s most well-funded “anti-hate” organizations, announced Thursday that it has fired its founder Morris Dees, suggesting in a statement that misconduct played a role in the decision.

“Effective yesterday, Morris Dees’ employment at the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) was terminated. As a civil rights organization, the SPLC is committed to ensuring that the conduct of our staff reflects the mission of the organization and the values we hope to instill in the world,” SPLC president Richard Cohen said in a statement. When one of our own fails to meet those standards, no matter his or her role in the organization, we take it seriously and must take appropriate action.”

“Today we announced a number of immediate, concrete next steps we’re taking, including bringing in an outside organization to conduct a comprehensive assessment of our internal climate and workplace practices, to ensure that our talented staff is working in the environment that they deserve – one in which all voices are heard and all staff members are respected,” he added.

According to the Montgomery Advertiser, Dees’ biography no longer appears on the Montgomery-based organization’s website.

ALReporter’s Josh Moon, citing multiple sources, said Dees faces allegations of sexual harassment.

In a statement to the Associated Press, Dees said his dismissal involved a personnel issue and called the SPLC a “wonderful” organization. He said he wishes the organization luck.

Dees, a Montgomery-based lawyer, co-founded the SPLC in 1971. Tax records show in 2017 that the organization had $450 million in assets.

The development comes as observers say the organization’s credibility has eroded, in part, due to its overzealous adding of conservatives groups and right-leaning figures to its “hate list.” A recent Washington Post opinion-editorial criticized the SPLC for a series of recent “blunders,” which included its failed attempt to label House and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson and author Maajid Nawaz as “extremists.”

For decades, the hate list was a golden seal of disapproval, considered nonpartisan enough to be heeded by government agencies, police departments, corporations and journalists. But in recent years, as the list has swept up an increasing number of conservative activists — mostly in the anti-LGBT, anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim categories — those conservatives have been fighting back. Boykin, of the FRC, recently sent a letter to about 100 media outlets (including The Washington Post) and corporate donors on behalf of four dozen groups and individuals “who have been targeted, defamed, or otherwise harmed” by the SPLC, warning that the hate list is no longer to be trusted. Mathew Staver, chairman of the Christian legal advocacy group Liberty Counsel, told me 60 organizations are interested in suing the SPLC.

Along the way, the SPLC undermined its own credibility with a couple of blunders. In 2015, it apologized for listing Ben Carson as an extremist (though not on the hate list), saying the characterization was inaccurate. Then, this past June, the group paid $3.4 million to Muslim activist Maajid Nawaz and his Quilliam organization to settle a threatened lawsuit.

According to a June 2018 report, more than 60 groups have weighed legal action against the SPLC for branding them as “hate groups” after Nawaz successful sued the organization. In February, Vice co-founder Gavin McInnes sued the SPLC, accusing the organization of “defaming” him by publishing “false, damaging and defamatory” information in an attempt to “deplatform” him.

The SPLC has reportedly worked with some of Silicon Valley’s largest technology companies, including Facebook, Google, and Twitter, to police their platforms for “hate,” and has enjoyed donations from Hollywood star George Clooney and Apple CEO Tim Cook.

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