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People have a hard time being ambivalent about Morris Dees. Assailed by some as more marketeer than crusader, he is often criticized for using stark images of racial violence to amass millions in donations for his Montgomery, Ala.-based Southern Poverty Law Center. Some civil rights lawyers say that he seeks publicity by suing cartoon bigots instead of pursuing less photogenic causes on behalf of the poor and minorities. His strategy of suing hate groups for the acts of their members has left some civil libertarians queasy about its free speech implications. And those are his friends. As for his foes, Dees has earned the enmity of the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacists, who regularly threaten his life and those of his staff. But regardless of his methods, what is inescapable about the ubiquitous Dees is that he and the Law Center, of which he is chief trial counsel, have made great strides in using the courts to discourage race-based violence. His strategy culminated this year with his Sept. 7 victory over the patriarch of modern hate groups, Richard G. Butler, the 82-year-old founder of the Aryan Nations. The Kootenai County, Idaho, jury in Keenan v. Aryan Nations found the hate group and its founder liable for $6.3 million in the assault by its members on a mother and son traveling near the group’s Hayden Lake, Idaho, compound. Dees and his local counsel have laid claim to the group’s 20-acre site, its buildings and even the group’s name. And on Oct. 30, Butler filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection. USING SPEECH TO ATTACK CONDUCT Born Morris Seligman Dees Jr. in Shorter, Ala., Dees, 64, co-founded the Southern Poverty Law Center in 1971 after having run a highly successful direct-marketing company. His career at the center has included efforts to achieve single-member districting for Alabama legislative elections and for integration of the state police there, but he is best known for a series of civil suits against hate groups, starting with one in 1987 in which the United Klans of America was found liable for $7 million in the lynching of a young black man. Almost a decade later, on July 1, 1998, Victoria Keenan and her son Jason were driving along a road abutting the Aryan Nations compound when their car backfired. Guards from the compound gave chase, firing automatic weapons at Ms. Keenan’s car, striking it several times. When they caught up with their car, the guards beat and threatened the mother and son. When the case landed on the desk of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, lawyer Norman L. Gissel, he realized he should give the Alabama lawyer a call, he says, because “there is no one in America who has more experience in this unique area of litigation.” Just as a store is responsible for the acts of its employees, Dees, 64, explains in his trademark molasses drawl, so, too, can a hate group like the Aryan Nations be responsible for the acts of its guards. In his complaint, filed on Jan. 25, 1999, Dees said that Butler was liable for the acts of his guards since Butler authorized them “to use violence against persons that members of the security force see as threats.” Shortly after the verdict, Dees quickly moved to seize all Aryan Nations’ assets for his clients, although Butler’s lawyer, Edgar Steele of Sandpoint, Idaho, was first in line for $65,000 in legal fees. Steele did not return calls seeking comment, but he has been quoted in the press as attacking the verdict as an assault on Butler’s free speech rights. “I respect groups’ First Amendment rights,” Dees says. “We use speech to show their motive.” Co-counsel Kenneth Howard of Coeur d’Alene agrees. “This case would have gone nowhere without the violence,” he says. “This is about stepping way over the line.” The center’s only means of funding is a sophisticated direct-mail effort that has garnered more than $100 million in donations, and some very negative press. “If I were sitting on all that money, I wonder whether I would put all my resources into these cases,” said one veteran civil rights lawyer who requested anonymity. “Given all the issues that people look to Morris to be a part of, I think there’s a dilemma there in part because he is such a good fund-raiser.” Other lawyers are less forgiving. “I think the real purpose is public relations,” says Stephen Bright, director of Atlanta’s Southern Center for Human Rights. “It makes up for the fact that most of the time the SPLC isn’t doing anything.” Bright says money going to the Law Center could be better used by other groups that depend on the same pool of donors for funds. But the Law Center assails those who say the threat from groups like the KKK has diminished. “Klan groups constitute only one component of the more than 500 hate groups that we monitor,” center President Joseph J. Levin Jr. wrote to Harper’s, which in November published an indictment of its fund-raising. Dees acknowledges that the war against hate groups like the Klan is winding down and that the new battlefield is cyberspace. “What happens now is a 20-year-old guy who would never even know how to find a skinhead meeting can log on to a hate Web site,” he says. “Hate just rears itself in other places.”

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