An evangelical Christian ministry is asking the Supreme Court to take up its 4-year-old defamation lawsuit against the Southern Poverty Law Center, arguing that the “actual malice” standard established in the court’s landmark New York Times v. Sullivan case should be tossed.
D. James Kennedy Ministries, the namesake of the late pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, sued the SPLC in 2017 after the Birmingham, Alabama-based organization designated the media ministry as a “hate group.”
The ministry says it is far from a hate group and preaches biblical messages, including the tenet that marriage was created to be between a man and a woman.
Lower courts, citing the 1964 actual-malice standard set in Sullivan, have rejected the ministry’s claims. The Sullivan decision states that public figures must prove such malice for a defamation case to proceed.
D. James Kennedy Ministries says it’s time for that standard to be changed. It notes that several current justices have questioned the ruling.
“We think the importance of this case rests on the fact that the Southern Poverty Law Center’s approach of creating their own definition of what constitutes a ‘hate group’ is in itself, a denial of due process,” ministry President Frank Wright said in a telephone interview. “The malice standard is literally unprovable. You can’t look into the soul of someone and say that you’ve seen that they did this act with malice.”
Attorneys for the ministry said in the court filing that the Sullivan decision creates “a more-often-than-not insurmountable bar for a public figure to plead and prove a defamation claim” that goes against “the correct, original understanding of the First Amendment.”
In New York Times v. Sullivan, the Supreme Court ruled in 1964 that “actual malice” is established when a defendant knowingly makes a defamatory statement that is false or makes the statement with a reckless disregard to its accuracy. The decision was made in the appeal of the case in which L.B. Sullivan, the police commissioner of Montgomery, Alabama, successfully sued The Times over an error-filled ad in 1960 that criticized the police force for mistreating civil rights protesters.
Republican-appointed Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil M. Gorsuch have written that it’s time for the Supreme Court to revisit Sullivan. Also taking the position were Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. “when he was working within the government” and Obama-appointed Justice Elena Kagan when she was a law professor, said attorney David Gibbs III, whose National Center for Life & Liberty represents D. James Kennedy Ministries.
“I believe our case is a perfect opportunity for them to make a decision. … We believe that being called a hate group is absolutely contrary to both what we are and the teaching of the Bible and the doctrines of the church and the ministry,” Mr. Gibbs said.
Mr. Wright, a veteran of Christian broadcasting and a former president of the Washington-based National Religious Broadcasters trade group, said he hopes a Supreme Court consideration of the ministry’s case will lead to a more equitable standard for defamation cases.
“In a system of laws like ours, there ought to be a remedy for those who rampantly, willfully, deliberately try to destroy those with whom they disagree,” he said. “That’s a public statement made by the president of the SPLC, [who] said, ‘We’d like to destroy every group listed on our hate map.’”
A spokeswoman for the Southern Poverty Law Center did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
D. James Kennedy Ministries and the Coral Ridge church received threats after the SPLC designation. The church had to spend “probably hundreds of thousands of dollars” on enhanced security, Mr. Wright said. The broadcast ministry is a separate corporation from Coral Ridge, he said, but the groups share a campus.
“We’ve had to remove all signage. The church has had to pay for a police officer to be posted at the church every day,” Mr. Wright said.
He said Coral Ridge operates a 900-student Christian academy across the street from the church campus and is concerned that the SPLC designation could attract “perhaps unstable minds” who would want to harm the facility or its people.
That concern is not without precedent. In August 2012, Floyd Lee Corkins II shot a security guard at the Washington headquarters of the conservative Family Research Council. Corkins said he was influenced by the SPLC’s designation of the Family Research Council as a “hate group.” A federal judge sentenced Corkins to 25 years in prison.
DISCLOSURE: In 1999, the Rev. D. James Kennedy wrote the foreword to reporter Mark A. Kellner’s book, “Y2K — Apocalypse or Opportunity?”