​Does the Southern Poverty Law Center target conservatives?​

Groups that have been included on the civil rights advocacy organization's annual list of hate and antigovernment groups say the organization can also be intolerant of views that don't align with its own.

Richard Shotwell/ Invision/AP­/File
Host Tony Harris (from l.) Morris Dees, co-founder Southern Poverty Law Center, and SPLC Intelligence Project Director, Heidi Beirich, appear on stage during the 'Hate in America' panel at the Investigation Discovery 2016 Winter TCA on Jan. 7, in Pasadena, Calif.

The Southern Poverty Law Center’s annual list of extremist groups in the United States is often seen as an authoritative survey of racist and antigovernment activity, but some organizations that have been named by the civil rights advocacy say its list serves to silence conservative viewpoints.

Last June, SPLC’s Hate Watch blog featured two police officers in Anniston, Ala., who were involved with the League of the South. The organization describes itself online as a “Southern Nationalist organization whose ultimate goal is a free and independent Southern republic,” while the SPLC defines the league as a racist, neo-Confederate group. One officer was fired and the other quickly resigned, the Associated Press reports.

Standing outside his house, where a sticker on the mailbox reads “SECEDE,” Josh Doggrell, the officer who was fired, told the Associated Press that the SPLC officials “have got an opinion like everybody else does and that's all it is, is an opinion about ideology.”

In its annual report, released on Wednesday, the group said that the number of antigovernment and hate groups jumped dramatically in 2015, due to a range of factors, including increased fears of terrorism following attacks in Paris and California, a growing divisiveness in political speech, and wider public attention to violent encounters between police and black men.

SPLC's count of US hate groups increased to from 784 in 2014 to 892 last year, while antigovernment organizations grew to 998, up from 874. The SPLC includes a number of black separatist groups in its tally, saying the groups jumped from 113 in 2014 to 180 in 2015.

"We think that the growth of these groups is due almost entirely to the very dramatic attention that has been paid over the past year to police violence against black men," Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the SPLC told the AP. The group also found an increase in the number of active Ku Klux Klan groups increased last year after falling for the previous two years.

The Family Research Council, which says its mission “is to advance faith, family, and freedom in public policy and the culture from a Christian worldview,” blames a 2012 shooting at its headquarters in Washington, D.C., on its inclusion on the SPLC’s hate groups list.

But officials from the SPLC, which was founded in 1971 in Montgomery, Ala., strongly deny that they focus on groups whose beliefs aren’t aligned with the organizations own views. They say the center has long defined hate groups as organizations that attack entire groups of people based on a characteristic key to their identity, such as race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation.

At times, that means the groups are also conservative, Mr. Potok the AP.

One sociologist who has studied extremist movements in the US says he has yet to see a group on the SPLC’s list he believes shouldn’t be included, but adds that defining “hatred” can be subjective.

“The SPLC is a non-governmental, private organization," Pete Simi, an associate professor at the University of Nebraska Omaha School of Criminology and Criminal Justice told the AP. “They're not the only voice that exists out there about what is or what isn't hate.”

The debate over how to define “hate speech” has a long, thorny history, with tensions recently flaring up over the legacy of former president Woodrow Wilson for his role in segregating federal office buildings and his decision to allow a screening of the film “Birth of a Nation,” which includes a fictionalized retelling of the history of the Ku Klux Klan and citations to Wilson’s own writing, at the White House.

The controversy, which includes growing calls to remove Wilson’s name from buildings and a school at Princeton University, had led to questions about Wilson’s own history with the film, including his friendship with Thomas Dixon, the author of the play “The Clansman,” on which the film was based.

The debate has had modern-day repercussions. Last year, the SPLC faced a backlash after including a profile of Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson in their 2014 “Extremist Files.”

In February 2015, after criticism of his inclusion, the group apologized to the candidate. The SPLC said that while some might consider Dr. Carson’s statements, including several that referenced Adolf Hitler, and comments on gay marriage, to be extreme, he should not have been branded an extremist.

But some groups that remain on the organization’s list say the organization can be as intolerant as the groups it focuses on and argue it makes more mistakes than it acknowledges. They also say that the group also makes money from its efforts.

"I think they exploit an element of fear among their donor base," League of the South president Michael Hill told the AP. “If you don't support us, these people are going to come get you.”

On its tax form for the fiscal year that ended on Oct. 31, 2014, the group reported about $54 million in total revenue, the AP reports, including $44 million in contributions and grants.

But SPLC officials insist they are focused on raising awareness about groups that threaten the legal rights guaranteed to Americans, specifically equal guaranteed to citizens of all races under the law.

"Our hate-groups map is not about frightening people or raising money. The Southern Poverty Law Center was born, and still lives today, to essentially defend the 14th Amendment," Potok told the AP, referring to the amendment passed in the aftermath of the Civil War.

SPLC leaders say it has had to change its methods as technology as led to changes in the nature of hate and extremism in the US.

Heidi Beirich, the SPLC’s Intelligence Project Director pointed to Dylan Roof, the white man who is accused of killing nine black parishioners at a church in Charleston, S.C., last year.

"As far as we can tell, he was completely radicalized online," she told the AP. "It could be that in 10 years a hate map, a hate list, doesn't make any sense because people aren't in groups anymore."

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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