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Clarence Thomas says he would hear ‘hate group’ appeal, revisit libel law

Associate Justice Clarence Thomas sat during a group photo at the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., on Friday, April 23, 2021.Erin Schaff/Associated Press

US Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas renewed his call to roll back the constitutional protections against defamation lawsuits, saying he would have heard arguments from a Christian ministry labeled an “anti-LGBT hate group” because of its dissemination of sermons condemning homosexuality.

The court Monday turned away an appeal from Coral Ridge Ministries Media Inc., which said it was defamed by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a group that monitors organizations it considers to be hate groups. Thomas was the lone justice to say he would have heard the case.

“SPLC’s ‘hate group’ designation lumped Coral Ridge’s Christian ministry with groups like the Ku Klux Klan and Neo-Nazis,” Thomas wrote. “It placed Coral Ridge on an interactive, online ‘Hate Map’ and caused Coral Ridge concrete financial injury.”

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Thomas said Coral Ridge should have been allowed to “hold SPLC to account for what it maintains is a blatant falsehood.” Two lower courts ruled against the ministry.

The appeal asked the Supreme Court to overturn, or at least narrow, the landmark 1964 New York Times v. Sullivan ruling, which requires public officials to show “actual malice” to sue a news organization or other speaker for libel. In subsequent decisions, the court extended that reasoning to cover non-elected public figures.

Coral Ridge said the “actual malice” standard shouldn’t apply when a private party is suing for defamation.

Coral Ridge’s primary work is broadcasting the pre-recorded sermons of D. James Kennedy, its late founder. Kennedy, a minister in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, described homosexuality as “lawless,” “an abomination,” “vile,” “against nature,” “profane,” and “shameful.”

Thomas wrote in 2019 that the New York Times ruling and follow-up cases “were policy-driven decisions masquerading as constitutional law.” Justice Neil Gorsuch has also called for the court to re-examine the 1964 ruling, though he didn’t join Thomas in the latest case.

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The case is Coral Ridge v. Southern Poverty Law Center, 21-802.