Ann Arbor-based law center classified by SPLC as "hate group" sues AG, state civil rights department

Wednesday, April 3, 2019 - 1:08am

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CORRECTION: The headline of this article has been updated to attribute the classification of the AFLC as a hate group to the Southern Poverty Law Center.  

In March, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s released its annual Hate Group Report. Each year, the nonprofit civil rights organization releases a report on groups engaging in incisive or hateful political activity in the United States. This year, 31 Michigan-based organizations were identified for white supremacist, anti-Muslim, anti-LGBT or general hate activity, including one group from Ann Arbor — the American Freedom Law Center.

The AFLC, a conservative law firm, was listed for its anti-Muslim stance, along with groups such as the Sharia Crime Stoppers and the Southeast Michigan Tea Party.

Ann Arbor lawyer Robert Muise, the co-founder and senior counsel for the AFLC, identifies as a “devout Catholic,” and his colleague and co-founder, David Yerushalmi, practices Orthodox Judaism. The two attorneys collectively founded the AFLC in January of 2012 after several years of collaborating on Constitutional law cases regarding issues such as free speech and abortion.

Following its foundation, the AFLC gained negative media attention as early as 2013 for representing conservative, anti-immigrant organizations such as the American Freedom Defense Initiative. In 2013, the AFDI sued King County, Washington, for refusing to post a bus advertisement titled “The Faces of Global Terrorism.” Another branch of the AFDI called “Stop Islamization of America,” had already been blocked from attempting to post similar advertisements a year earlier in New York City’s subway system.

By 2015, the case was brought to the Ninth Circuit Federal Court of Appeals, where Muise and Yerushalmi claimed the AFDI had the First Amendment right to advertise its views freely. Following the court’s siding with King County, the AFLC attempted to appeal and take the case to the Supreme Court, though their request to be heard by the court was rejected 7-2 in 2016.

Within the SPLC, Yerushalmi is listed as “a key figure in the U.S. anti-Muslim hate movement,” and has been monitored by the SPLC for the past several years. According to SPLC Communications Director Rebecca Sturtevant, the group has gathered a significant amount of information on Yerushalmi and his legal and political activity.

In a 2017 video interview cited by the SPLC, Yerushalmi explicitly stated his views toward the Muslim community and its presence in America.

“I don’t have a problem saying that Western cultural and civilization is simply supreme,” Yerushalmi said. “It’s superior to that which is conquered, and I have no problem with saying that Islamic culture is violent, it’s misogynist, it’s discriminatory and it’s backward, and all I have to do is point to the entire Muslim world.”

According to the SPLC, Yerushalmi is also the founder of the Society of Americans for National Existence, which was established in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and promoted the idea that Islamic religious law is “a criminal conspiracy to overthrow the U.S. government.”

The AFLC’s work for anti-immigrant causes and its founders’ anti-Muslim views brought it to the SPLC’s attention. Following the SPLC’s report released in March, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel established a unit to investigate and prosecute Michigan organizations perpetuating hate crimes. Muise is currently in the midst of ongoing litigation with Nessel and the Michigan Department of Civil Rights over the unit.

After filing an initial lawsuit on Feb. 28, the AFLC filed its first amended complaint on March 12 against Nessel and MDCR Director Agustin Arbulu. The legal document cited First and 14th Amendment violations in Nessel and Arbulu’s conduct toward the AFLC in recent weeks.

According to Muise, while the hate crimes unit has yet to prosecute the AFLC for hate crimes, Nessel’s inclusion of the AFLC as a potential hate group represents an infringement on the group’s Constitutional freedoms.

“(The attorney general’s office) is a government agency that has law enforcement authority, targeting us as engaging in illegal conduct against minority organizations,” Muise said. “Now that the state is involved, the government is involved, that’s triggered our constitutional protections. And we seek to protect those in federal court by a court declaration that protects us, that keeps us from being a target of the attorney general and the Department of Civil Rights.”

According to Muise, none of AFLC’s past or current actions would justify prosecutorial measures by the Office of the Attorney General. As he explains, the AFLC classifies itself as “a public interest law firm defending the rights of those who promote Judeo-Christian values.”

Regarding the case against the state of Michigan, however, Muise argues that defense of civil liberties against government infringement remains the sole rationale of the AFLC’s legal argument.

“I took an oath as a marine officer to support and defend the Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic and that’s what I do,” Muise said. “And right now, I consider the Michigan AG’s office to be a domestic enemy, because of what they’re doing in violating our Constitutional rights.”

Furthermore, Muise claims the MDCR and attorney general’s use of information from the Southern Poverty Law Center is not only inaccurate, but represents a problematic use of information from a partisan group by a government agency.

“You have the attorney general, who’s weaponizing that office in a way that they’re targeting political opponents,” Muise said. “So now in the mind of the public, the American Freedom Law Center is a criminal organization operating here in Michigan, and that’s just plainly wrong, it’s illegal for the government to do that.”

The AFLC built on this argument in its first amended complaint, writing, “Defendants and SPLC are conspiring and working jointly to promote SPLC’s radical political agenda, by targeting political opponents, such as plaintiff, for investigations, surveillance, public condemnation, public scorn, and other efforts designed to harm their work.”

In response to the accusations against the attorney general, state Rep. Yousef Rabhi, D-Ann Arbor, said the AFLC’s decision to sue the state was not a surprise, considering the group’s past actions and the progressive goals outlined by the MDCR.

“It’s not surprising to me that an organization like the American Freedom Law Center or other far-right organizations would attack them, because what they’re doing is actually protecting marginalized communities,” Rabhi said. “They’re protecting people of color, they’re protecting the LGBTQ community and these are people that these groups are coming after actively. If you have an organization like the Michigan Department of Civil Rights and the Civil Rights Commission that’s helping to protect them, of course they’re going to come after them.”

Rabhi explained that the AFLC’s legal action against Nessel not only represents opposition to the progressive measures she has pursued during the first three months of her term, but also demonstrates opposition to the potential for social change her recent election proved to the people of Michigan.

“They also came after our attorney general as well, Dana Nessel, who is the first openly LGBT attorney general of our state, and so of course they’re going after her,” Rabhi said. “She is a champion of the people, she’s done amazing work already in the first three months, standing up for the people of this state and protecting people’s rights. It’s not surprising that far-right organizations would come after her and sue her in her pursuit of having a more just and equitable society here in the state of Michigan.”

AFLC’s lawsuit against the attorney general and MDCR made reference to several state and federal statutes permitting free expression and open legal representation.

Law student Kevin Deutsch explained the basis of the AFLC’s lawsuit against the attorney general’s office, as set out in the organization’s first amended complaint.

“They’re suing under 42 U.S. Code 1983,” Deutsch said. “It’s a very well-known and important law, which allows people who live in the United States to sue state officials over civil rights violations under the color of state law. Specifically, the AFLC is seeking a declaration that the policy applied to them violates their Constitutional right to free speech and what they describe as ‘expressive association,’ as well as their 14th Amendment right to equal protection.”

Deutsch further explained that the AFLC’s decision to take legal action against the attorney general’s office represents a preemptive measure, aimed at preventing Nessel from prosecuting the organization in the future.

“In terms of a legal strategy, seeking the declarative relief makes sense, strictly speaking from a strategic standpoint,” Deutsch said. “If successful, it would be the first step in keeping Attorney General Nessel from going after them under her new policy.”

Throughout the AFLC’s lawsuit were complaints regarding infringement on freedom of speech and freedom to freely represent any legal client. However, according to Rabhi, the issue with the actions of groups like the AFLC doesn’t necessarily come from the its legal actions, but from the message it sends to more extreme groups and individuals.

“I think that it’s important to understand that hate speech oftentimes involves not just hatred towards people, but actually incitement of terrorism,” Rabhi said. “When we think about things like the shooting in New Zealand or in Charlottesville, the deaths that occurred there, there are extreme right terrorists that are emboldened and encouraged and use these organizations as platforms and resources. In my opinion, there’s no difference between how we have in the past treated organizations like ISIS and Al-Qaeda, that’s the same way we should be treating groups that promote hate speech, because they are promoting and defending terrorism.”

The concern over AFLC anti-Muslim activity correlates with a spike in hate crimes across the state. to According to SPLC data, last year, Michigan experienced a 6.5-percent increase in number of total active hate groups across the state. As Arbulu explained, the increase in general hate activity across Michigan represents a pressing issue for state lawmakers.

“This is a troubling trend,” Arbulu stated in a Feb. 22 press release regarding the SPLC report. “These groups range in the ideological extremes from anti-Muslim, to anti-LGBT to Black nationalist and white nationalists.”

In response to the AFLC’s accusations, state officials have already struck back, rejecting the legitimacy of the group’s legal claims.

Kelly Rossman-McKinney, the communications director for the attorney general, emphasized a distinction between the SPLC’s classifications and the actions of the Hate Crimes Unit. While McKinney declined to comment on the ongoing litigation involving the AFLC, she emphasized “the Hate Crimes Unit of the Office of the Attorney General has never classified any organization as a hate group.”

Arbulu echoed McKinney’s message, stating that any legal action taken by the AFLC is premature, as all future actions of the Hate Crimes Unit are still being determined. In an email interview with The Daily, Arbulu further stated the unit will only begin to take actions against groups based on their discriminatory actions, as opposed to the classifications of the SPLC.

“The department, in conjunction with the Office of the Attorney General merely brought attention to the SPLC report,” Arbulu said. “The department’s central repository will be focused on actions, not people or groups. The procedures and policies for this system remain under development.”

Ultimately, the actions of the Hate Crimes Unit may be more complex. In a March 8 press release following the unit’s establishment, Nessel acknowledged all organizations’ Constitutional rights to freedom of speech and expression. However, Nessel also underscored her role in prosecuting those who would use those rights to discriminate or cause harm to other Michigan residents.

“Hate itself is not a crime and our civil liberties protect the right to speak about even the most terrible of things,” Nessel said. “But when a criminal offense is committed against a person or property and it is motivated by an offender’s bias against a particular group, then my office will act. To do that, we intend to work with both federal and local authorities to ensure these crimes are thoroughly investigated and prosecuted to the fullest extent possible under the law.”

Arbulu echoed this message with respect to his own department, explaining preventing discrimination and other hateful activity is precisely the responsibility of the MDCR.

“The role of MDCR is two-fold,” Arbulu said. “First to assist communities in addressing bias by offering training and community conversations to assist in developing resilience in the face of bias and hate. Second, when unlawful discrimination occurs and a person files a complaint, we pursue an investigation, reconciliation and such other permissible action.”

Following the complaint filed by the AFLC, the MDCR and the attorney general’s office will have 21 days to file a response, at which point the AFLC may attempt to file a deposition against the state.

While the AFLC has emphasized its case has standing under the Constitution, state officials and politicians like Rabhi have argued the issue of free speech is only secondary in judging the validity of the AFLC’s case.

“This group is talking about free speech — it has nothing to do with free speech, it has to do with protecting the life and liberty and happiness of millions of Americans,” Rabhi said. “And since when has that been a problem?”