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Annual report cites rise in hate groups, but some ask: What is hate?

The Southern Poverty Law Center says the number of US hate groups has topped 1,000 for the first time. But conservative critics say a too-broad definition of hate stifles legitimate debate.

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In December, 22 Republican lawmakers, among them Speaker Boehner and Representative Bachmann, three governors, and a number of conservative organizations took out full-page ads in two Washington papers castigating the SPLC for “character assassination” by listing the conservative Family Research Council as a hate group.

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Professor Livingston’s own run-in with the SPLC is over his previous association with the League of the South, initially a largely academic organization that promoted the notion that the South might have to secede. The SPLC lists him as an "ideologue" of the neo-Confederate movement.

According to the SPLC, the League of the South today “is a neo-Confederate group that advocates for a second Southern secession and a society dominated by ‘European Americans.’ The league believes the ‘godly’ nation it wants to form should be run by an ‘Anglo-Celtic’ (read: white) elite that would establish a Christian theocratic state and politically dominate blacks and other minorities.”

Livingston says he left the League after it became more political in nature, but adds that it is not a hate group.

Emory University, Livingston says, looked into claims in a college newspaper story that used the SPLC's designation to link him to a "hate group," but he was cleared and backed by the university.

"They really need to explain what they mean by hate and how in the world [Loyola economist Thomas] DiLorenzo or myself could be associated with something called hate," says Livingston. "We don't hate anybody."

In January, Mr. DiLorenzo was called out on the House floor for being a member of the League of the South. Mr. DiLorenzo says he's not a member, but Loyola University in Baltimore is investigating.

Livingston, who describes himself as a former supporter of the SPLC, questions whether the organization's "hate group" reports are primarily tied to its fund-raising activities. He also notes that many of those listed by the SPLC take it as a "badge of honor," much as tea party activists took to wearing "I'm a right-wing extremist" T-shirts.

Nevertheless, he says, "it's time for some reality check on this sort of thing, beginning with the very concept of hate. The SPLC has a political agenda and they vilify people, that's what they do. There's very little in the way of an empirical examination of groups that might pose a threat to civil order. There's almost nobody left in the Klan, so what they do is they find respectable groups or high-profile people and they say, 'X is linked to Y, who is linked to a hate group.' That's what McCarthy did."

The SPLC’s Potok takes the criticisms in stride.

"We are regularly accused of trying to shut down people's speech rights, of trying to send anyone to prison who is not politically correct," Potok says. "Those criticisms are ludicrous, and they come from people who don't read what we write."

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