The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), following the recent departures of three top executives, is facing calls in some quarters for a federal investigation. How did the venerated civil-rights organization in Montgomery, Alabama, land in such an uncomfortable spot? We recently discovered an active SPLC case that -- when juxtaposed with what could be called a "non-case" -- might help provide answers to that question.
The pending case is styled Manuel Duran Ortega v. U.S. Department of Homeland Security, et al, which involves a journalist for a Spanish-language newspaper in Memphis, TN. Police arrested Duran in April 2018 at a peaceful demonstration to mark the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King's assassination. After those charges were dropped, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detained Duran, moved him to Louisiana, and started deportation proceedings against him. Duran now is being held at a federal detention facility in Gadsden, AL, once run by former Etowah County Sheriff Todd Entrekin, best known as the guy who stole money from an inmate-food fund to help build a beach house on the Gulf Coast.
Duran has been incarcerated at various facilities for more than a year, and SPLC is seeking his release via a writ of habeus corpus. From the writ, prepared by SPLC staff attorneys Meredith B. Stewart, Kristi L. Graunke, and Michelle Lapointe:
The actions pursued by government officials in this case threaten core First Amendment freedoms that are essential to our democracy: the right to criticize and expose the actions of government officials, and the right of members of the press to write and publish about them. Petitioner Manuel Duran Ortega is a 42-year-old journalist from El Salvador who fled to the United States in 2006 after his life was threatened. On April 3, 2018, while reporting on a demonstration in Memphis, Tennessee, Mr. Duran Ortega was illegally arrested by Memphis police and subsequently turned over to and detained by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in retaliation for his past critical coverage of immigration enforcement activities. Mr. Duran Ortega was arrested and is being detained by DHS in order to punish and suppress his speech as a journalist, in violation of the First, Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution.
What is my take on the SPLC's efforts to defend Mr. Duran? As a believer in due process, equal protection, and constitutional guarantees for all, I'm fully behind them. But what about that "non-case" referenced earlier?
Well, that one hits close to home. It involves my unlawful arrest in October 2013, with deputies from the Shelby County, AL Sheriff's Department entering our home, beating me up, dousing me with pepper spray and hauling me to jail for a five-month stay. It all was in response to an unlawful temporary restraining order (TRO) and preliminary injunction issued in a defamation lawsuit that Rob Riley (son of former Gov. Bob Riley) and his alleged mistress (lobbyist Liberty Duke) brought against me. As a matter of law, this was a 100-percent civil matter, without the slightest whiff of criminal allegations and for which -- under more than two centuries of First Amendment law -- I could not be subject to arrest over material that had not been found defamatory at a jury trial. I was jailed because of bogus rulings issued by Alabama Judge Claud Neilson, essentially acting as a one-man censor, in violation of longstanding law.
I became the only journalist in the Western Hemisphere to be incarcerated in 2013 -- apparently the only one in U.S. history to be jailed in a wholly civil matter, and the only one jailed because of a TRO or preliminary injunction, both of which are unlawful prior restraints in defamation cases. (See Near v. Minnesota.)
The story of my arrest received national and international news coverage, from The New York Times to Al Jazeera, from Think Progress to RU Posters in Russia, and dozens of sites in between. Even the right-wingers at al.com reported on it. So, there is no way the "civil rights big dogs" at the SPLC (including co-founder Morris Dees and president Richard Cohen, both recently ousted) did not know about it. The site of my beating and arrest was less than 90 miles from SPLC's snazzy headquarters in downtown Montgomery.
But on perhaps the most grotesque abuse of First Amendment rights in the modern era -- right in its own backyard -- SPLC was missing in action. The so-called "Southern warriors for civil rights" jumped on the Manuel Duran case -- and I approve of their actions in that matter -- but sat on their hands while I sat in jail for more than five months. SPLC did not even issue a one-page press release -- tsk-tsking what had been done to hammer a free press in their own neck of the woods.
To be fair, SPLC was not the only civil-rights institution to do little or nothing in my case. The ACLU of Alabama, also based in Montgomery, issued a friend-of-the-court brief (and it was well done) but that was it. To my knowledge, there was nothing to keep ACLU director Randall Marshall and his crew from taking up my case and defending it hammer and tongs.
If ACLU headquarters had issued a press statement, imagine how big the story would have become. But once the brief was entered in the record, the ACLU let me sit and rot. I'm not aware that they even issued a press release. It's almost as if they did not want anyone to know of their involvement.
Why is that? Let's return to this passage from our previous post on this matter:
Multiple press reports suggest Morris Dees' primary talent, since founding SPLC in 1971, has been separating liberals from boatloads of cash. On the flip side, he and his staff -- while promoting the notion that "hate groups" are proliferating in America -- did relatively little to stand up for those whose civil rights had been violated, often by judges, lawyers, bar associations (the legal tribe), and law enforcement, and conservative politicians.
In fact, we now known Dees long has been in bed with the very entities that tend to abuse civil rights. One source who has seen Dees operate in an up-close way tells Legal Schnauzer Dees he has a history of manipulating courts -- especially the U.S. Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta -- to help ensure his allies receive favorable treatment. If this means sucking up to Republicans -- even those with records of opposing civil rights -- Dees is willing to do it.
Some have suggested SPLC practices a form of reverse racism, against white people. From National Vanguard:
"The SPLC works closely with the judiciary, law enforcement, secret police agencies, the media, and academia to quash the rights of White Americans by targeting, terrorizing, and destroying them and their families emotionally, reputationally, economically, and organizationally. . . ."
I'm not sure I buy National Vanguard's claim that SPLC intentionally seeks to abuse white people, but they definitely are on target about Morris Dees' cozy relationship with courts, law enforcement, and the legal-tribe hierarchy (as in bar associations). It's possible SPLC did not get involved with my case because stories about defending the civil rights of a white journalists is not likely to rake in cash from liberal donors -- and raking in cash seems to be the No. 1 goal at SPLC. But I think Morris Dees and Co. let me rot because it was their buddies in the courts, law enforcement, legal tribe, etc. who caused my arrest. And SPLC did not want to shine an unflattering light on their friends and benefactors.
As for the Manuel Duran case, it likely is driven by knuckleheads in the Memphis Police Department, Homeland Security, and ICE. That means the SPLC is free to go after that case because they can do it without unmasking their corrupt comrades.
We will be watching the Duran case. This is from an April 5 article at al.com:
Recently, the Eleventh Circuit Court sent Duran’s case back to the Board of Immigration Appeals. According to his attorneys, this means he could face additional months or even years in detention while his asylum claims work their way through the legal system.
This week Duran also filed a new federal lawsuit, which alleges Shelby County, Tenn. and the city of Memphis targeted Duran because of his unflattering coverage of them.
The lawsuit claims the city police had no probable cause to arrest Duran at the protest and the Sheriff’s department should not have turned him over to immigration officials.
Consider these words from the writ of habeas corpus in the Duran case:
Manuel Duran Ortega is a citizen of El Salvador who has lived in the United States continuously since his arrival in 2006. He has resided in Memphis, Tennessee, for the majority of that time.
In 2006, Mr. Duran Ortega fled El Salvador, where he had been working as a television station manager. After a rival television station employee used his law enforcement connections to have Mr. Duran Ortega arrested on trumped-up charges, Mr. Duran Ortega reported on corruption in law enforcement and the judicial system. After his report, he began to receive death threats and escaped to the United States.
The highlighted information above sounds a lot like my experience in the United States. But the SPLC has gone to bat big-time for Mr. Duran (a non-citizen) while doing nothing for me (a citizen for 62 years).
SPLC still could help with my case, especially if its real lawyers were allowed to, now that Morris Dees is gone. What I call our "Jail Case" currently is on appeal in the Eleventh Circuit, and we soon will seek to have the case based on theft of our Birmingham home via wrongful foreclosure ("The House Case") re-opened due to massive irregularities at both the district and circuit-court levels that likely amount to fraud on the court.
Does SPLC have the guts to take on such cases, especially if they threaten to step on the toes of Morris Dees' buddies? Perhaps we will find out.