First Amendment

11th Circuit rules for Southern Poverty Law Center in defamation suit over hate group designation

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A federal appeals court has affirmed dismissal of a conservative Christian group’s lawsuit alleging that the Southern Poverty Law Center defamed the church by designating it a hate group.

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at Atlanta tossed the suit by Coral Ridge Ministries Media Inc. in a July 28 decision.

Coral Ridge Ministries Media lost on two claims—a defamation claim against the Southern Poverty Law Center and a religious discrimination claim against and the AmazonSmile Foundation for banning the ministry from a charity partner program.

The AmazonSmile Foundation donates 0.5% of the cost of eligible purchases to charities chosen by customers from a select list of organizations. The AmazonSmile Foundation states that it relies on the Southern Poverty Law Center in deciding which groups are eligible to participate.

The Southern Poverty Law Center defines hate groups online as those that have “beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people, typically for their immutable characteristics.”

Coral Ridge Ministries Media said it was wrongly designated a hate group because of its religious beliefs about “homosexual conduct.” Rejecting the Southern Poverty Law Center definition, Coral Ridge Ministries Media said the common understanding of the term is a group that engages in violence and crime.

The appeals court cited the First Amendment in tossing both claims.

Coral Ridge Ministries Media conceded that it is a public figure, a designation that requires a showing of actual malice under the First Amendment. Yet the ministry failed to satisfy that standard when it didn’t plead facts suggesting that the Southern Poverty Law Center doubted the veracity or accuracy of its hate group claim, the appeals court said in an opinion by Judge Charles Wilson.

In addition, Coral Ridge Ministries Media can’t sue for religious bias because forcing Amazon to donate to organizations it doesn’t support would violate its First Amendment rights, the appeals court said.

Hat tip to Courthouse News Service, which had coverage of the decision.

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