SPLC agrees to $3.3 million settlement over its 'Field Guide to Anti-Muslim Extremists'

The Southern Poverty Law Center has made an apology and agreed to a $3.3 million settlement in a lawsuit over its “Field Guide to Anti-Muslim Extremists.” When the Field Guide was published in 2016 it included the name of Maajid Nawaz, a British Muslim who runs the Quilliam Foundation. Nawaz sued the SPLC in 2017 and today Quilliam announced the settlement victory:

The Southern Poverty Law Center, Inc. has apologized to Quilliam and its founder Maajid Nawaz for wrongly naming them in its controversial Field Guide to Anti-Muslim Extremists. In a public statement, the SPLC’s president, Richard Cohen, explained that “Mr. Nawaz and Quilliam have made valuable and important contributions to public discourse, including by promoting pluralism and condemning both anti-Muslim bigotry and Islamist extremism.”…

The SPLC also agreed to pay a $3.375 million settlement, which Quilliam and Nawaz intend to use to fund work fighting anti-Muslim bigotry and Islamist extremism. “With the help of everyone who contributed to our litigation fund, we were able to fight back against the Regressive Left and show them that moderate Muslims will not be silenced,” said Nawaz. “We will continue to combat extremists by defying Muslim stereotypes, calling out fundamentalism in our own communities, and speaking out against anti-Muslim hate.”

The SPLC posted a video apology on its own site, which you can view here. The apology says in part, “Since we published the Field Guide, we have taken the time to do more research…” Yes, lawsuits have a funny way of making people do more research.

The SPLC’s tone today is very different now from what it was two years ago. When the Atlantic spoke to the Field Guide’s author, Mark Potok, about the inclusion of Nawaz in its list, Potok was confident no apology was forthcoming:

“Our point is not to make these people targets for violence, Potok said. “The point is to tamp down the really baseless targeting.” While Nawaz demanded a correction, retraction, and apology, Potok said none was coming.

In addition to Nawaz, the same document listed Ayaan Hirsi Ali as an extremist. She wrote about her inclusion on the list in a piece for the NY Times last August:

In that guide, the S.P.L.C. claims that I am a “propagandist far outside the political mainstream” and warns journalists to avoid my “damaging misinformation.” These groundless smears are deeply offensive, as I have dedicated much of my adult life to calling out the true extremists: organizations such as Al Qaeda and ISIS. Yet you will look in vain for the S.P.L.C.’s “Field Guide to Muslim Extremists.” No such list exists.

That’s a shame, because Islamic extremism — a movement that aims to impose a caliphate and Sharia law by violent means — is as toxic as white supremacy. In the past two decades, it has certainly been responsible for many more deaths.

The SPLC deleted the “Field Guide” from its website sometime in April of this year. It’s good to see them forced to backtrack, though the settlement will barely make a dent in their $432 million endowment. Finally, it’s worth noting that Popehat, who doesn’t seem to have much love for the SPLC, says there’s a worrisome aspect to this settlement:

The SPLC has fallen from being a justifiably respected warrior against bigotry and brutality to an unreliable, sophomoric, flailing orthodoxy-cop that struggles to distinguish organized hate groups like the Klan from trolls, idiots, or social conservatives. I would like to see them be more responsible. But I am worried — and you should be too — about the abuse of defamation law…

It’s impossible to overstate the extent of the SPLC’s surrender here — I can’t remember one combining this level of money and apology, especially pre-litigation. So why did they do it? Maybe there are specific false statements of fact in the Field Guide that haven’t come to light. Perhaps discovery would have revealed ugly things about the SPLC’s process of writing such lists. Perhaps the lawsuit would have resulted in sustained terrible publicity for the SPLC, undermining whatever credibility it has left. Maybe they’re actually contrite.

But though I celebrate an apology for wrongdoing, I can’t celebrate a surrender at swordpoint that encourages censorious litigation. Bad opinions are, and ought to be — must be — absolutely protected. If the SPLC surrendered because we’ve got a broken judicial system that makes litigation ruinously expensive and fails to protect free speech, the result is bad, not good.

Here’s Nawaz announcing his lawsuit on Bill Maher’s show last June: