Supreme Court denies Broward ministry’s petition over ‘hate group’ designation

The Supreme Court recently declined to review a Broward County megachurch’s petition to review the high standard that public figures and entities face during defamation lawsuits.

The petitioner was D. James Kennedy Ministries, formerly known as the Coral Ridge Ministries for its association with the Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, at 5555 N Federal Hwy., in Fort Lauderdale.

It was the conclusion of years of lawsuits against the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit legal advocacy organization specializing in civil rights and public interest litigation, over “a hate group” designation.

“This is a victory for the Southern Poverty Law Center, for responsible journalists, as well as for investigative organizations across the country who work to expose the hate and extremism that infects our daily life across the U.S.,” Margaret Huang, the SPLC president and chief executive officer, said in a statement.

The conflict began after Amazon Smile declined to allow the ministry to use the site for fundraising over the designation. The ministry filed a defamation lawsuit in 2017.

SPLC, which has been publishing the annual “The Year in Hate & Extremism Report” for years, cited the DJKM campaigns against same-sex marriage to support the designation.

The ministry, represented by attorneys with the National Center of Life and Liberty, maintained that although it “opposes homosexual conduct” based on its religious beliefs, it is in no sense a “hate group.”

SPLC responded that the designation was protected by the First Amendment.

“Any organization we list as a hate group is free to use their own First Amendment free speech rights to disagree with us about our designation,” Huang said in a statement.

The ministry petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court on Oct. 14, 2021, to revisit New York Times Co v. Sullivan. The landmark 1964 ruling forces public figures and entities to prove “actual malice” to win a defamation claim. The ministry contested the public entity should not be held to that high standard of proof.

The Supreme Court denied the ministry’s petition on Monday putting an end to the legal battle. As a public entity, the ministry had to prove three elements to rebut the protection of the First Amendment: The designation had to be “provably false,” “actually false,” and made with “actual malice.”

The court’s opinion was that SPLC’s “hate group” designation was not “false because ‘hate group’ has a highly debatable and ambiguous meaning.” Thomas was the only dissenting vote.

“This case is one of many showing how New York Times and its progeny have allowed media organizations and interest groups to cast false aspersions on public figures with near impunity,” Thomas wrote in his brief dissent.

Rev. D. James Kennedy founded the ministry in 1974 and died in 2007. Rev. Rob Pacienza is the DJKM president and chief executive officer. He refused to comment on this story.

A representative released a statement: “DJK Ministries is thankful for the time and effort given to our case by the United States Supreme Court. We are thankful for Justice Thomas’ thoughtful and detailed dissent, and we agree with his comments.”

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