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Date of Award

Spring 2017

Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)


School of Writing, Rhetoric, and Technical Communication


Traci Arnett Zimmerman

Sarah O'Connor

S. Scott Lundsford


In the 1980s, the term “hate group” began to appear increasingly in American media reports, often referring to the Ku Klux Klan or various neo-Nazi activities. There is no legal definition of the term, as it is not illegal to belong to such organizations, and so the designation of hate groups generally falls to private advocacy groups that claim to track them, such as the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) of Montgomery, Alabama. When the media or academic researchers require data on hate groups, they often turn to advocacy groups, usually due to a lack of other sources and because of the ease of access to the data and to perceived experts in the field.

This thesis will examine the hate group data produced by the Southern Poverty Law Center, analyzing its accuracy and reliability by examining the SPLC’s methodology and claims. I will also examine the SPLC’s reputation as a trusted source of information by reviewing the history of the organization, its rhetorical practices, and the public statements of several of its key officers. As any study or academic research is only as valid as the accuracy of the information upon which it is based, it is essential to evaluate accuracy of the source of the data.

Many of the SPLC’s rhetorical practices can be compared with the fearmongering and exploitation found in classic propaganda techniques and will be analyzed further in this paper. Instead of serving as an unbiased clearinghouse for hate group information, the SPLC often pursues an ideologically-driven course that is designed to influence a targeted, politically progressive audience.

Because this unvetted data is readily accepted by the media and researchers, and ultimately by lawmakers and law enforcement agencies, there may be serious First Amendment issues involved. While this paper in no way condones or supports hateful ideologies, it is imperative to remember, as the American Civil Liberties Union notes, that “Constitutional rights must apply to even the most unpopular groups if they’re going to be preserved for everyone.”