BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — Many consider The Southern Poverty Law Center's annual list of U.S. extremist groups an authoritative glimpse into racist and anti-government activity, but some of its targets contend the civil rights advocacy group is actually focused on silencing conservative viewpoints — sometimes with serious consequences.
The Family Research Council blames a 2012 shooting at its Washington, D.C., headquarters on its inclusion on the SPLC's hate-group list. The council's website says its mission "is to advance faith, family and freedom in public policy and the culture from a Christian worldview."
Last June, SPLC's Hate Watch blog featured two Anniston, Alabama, police officers who had been involved with the League of the South, which defines itself on its website as a "Southern Nationalist organization whose ultimate goal is a free and independent Southern republic." The SPLC defines the league as a racist neo-Confederate organization. One officer resigned and the other was quickly fired.
SPLC officials "have got an opinion like everybody else does and that's all it is, is an opinion about ideology," the fired officer, Josh Doggrell, said outside his home, where a sticker on the mailbox reads "SECEDE."
Southern Poverty Law Center officials strongly deny that they target groups whose beliefs don't align with theirs. They insist that the center has always and continues to define hate groups as organizations that attack an entire class of people for characteristics central to their identity — such as race, religion and sexual orientation — and that use lies or name-calling to promote their agenda. Sometimes, those groups may also be conservative, said SPLC senior fellow Mark Potok.
The Southern Poverty Law Center was founded in 1971 in Montgomery, Alabama. It began watching the Ku Klux Klan in the 1980s and expanded to other groups in the late '90s, including anti-government militias. It has since widened its focus to include white nationalist, black separatist, and anti-gay groups. It has also targeted the Christian Identity theology, which holds that whites are God's chosen people. The SPLC identifies Christian Identity as a racist, anti-Semitic theology.
In its annual report, released Wednesday, the SPLC said the number of hate groups and anti-government organizations in the United States jumped sharply in 2015 as political speech became more divisive, violent encounters between police and black men were increasingly publicized, and attacks in Paris and California spurred widespread fears of terrorism.
The number of U.S. hate groups increased to 892 last year, up from 784 in 2014, the center said, while the number of anti-government groups increased to 998, up from 874 in 2014.
The nonprofit also noted an uptick in anti-Muslim behavior, which it linked to terrorist attacks in Paris and California, and talking points from Republican presidential candidates. Some candidates have suggested that Muslim Syrian war refugees be blocked from entering the country to ensure that Muslim extremists don't get in. SPLC leaders said they expect an increase in anti-Muslim groups in the future.
The group also noted that the number of black separatist groups, which it categorizes as hate groups, has risen 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," Potok said. The number of active Ku Klux Klan groups also increased in 2015 after falling between 2013 and 2014.
Pete Simi, an associate professor at the University of Nebraska Omaha School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, says he has yet to see a group on the SPLC's list that he believes shouldn't be, although he said defining hatred is subjective.
"The SPLC is a non-governmental, private organization," said Simi, who studies extremist movements. "They're not the only voice that exists out there about what is or what isn't hate."
Last year, the SPLC acknowledged its labels aren't always foolproof.
In February 2015, SPLC officials apologized to Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson for the 2014 profile of him in their online "Extremist Files."
SPLC leaders said that, following intense criticism, they determined that while some might consider Carson's statements on gay marriage and other issues extreme, he should not have been branded an extremist.
Leaders of the groups that remain on the SPLC's lists insist the center makes more mistakes than it acknowledges and is as intolerant as it accuses its targets of being.
League of the South President Michael Hill said he thinks the group's agenda is to demonize anyone it disagrees with — and make money in the process.
"I think they exploit an element of fear among their donor base," he said. "'If you don't support us, these people are going to come get you.'"
On its tax form for the fiscal year ending Oct. 31, 2014, the SPLC reported about $54 million in total revenue: more than $44 million in contributions and grants, and nearly $9 million in investment income. The group's endowment fund was worth more than $302 million in October 2015 and it reported roughly $338 million in total assets.
"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," said Potok, referring to the amendment that guarantees citizens of all races equal protection under the law.
Potok and other SPLC leaders say the nature of hatred and extremism has evolved — largely because of technology — and the organization had to make adjustments in how it tracks threats.
SPLC Intelligence Project Director Heidi Beirich cited Dylann Roof, the white man accused of killing nine people at a black church in South Carolina last year.
"As far as we can tell, he was completely radicalized online," she said. "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."