Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, on Trump and what counts as ‘hate’

Not long after it launched in 1971, the Southern Poverty Law Center made a name for itself as a standard-bearer in the fight for civil rights.

Since then, the Montgomery, Ala.-based nonprofit has filed dozens of lawsuits over the years targeting groups that include law enforcement and government officials. It’s helped dismantle a host of Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups around the country by winning millions on behalf of its clients in court cases against them, sending a few into bankruptcy.

And since the election of President Trump, the law center has taken on new relevance. It has repeatedly criticized the president for “the Trump effect,” a term its leaders use to describe an uptick in harassment and violence against racial and religious minorities after Trump’s election victory.

In February, the law center reported that its count of hate groups in the country increased for the second consecutive year and that the number of anti-Muslim organizations had nearly tripled within a year. It attributed the growth to “Trump’s incendiary rhetoric” on Muslims and the reaction to the June 2016 mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla.

But the prominent civil rights group has also faced renewed criticism. Conservatives say it’s too quick to label organizations and individuals as hate groups or extremists for opposing lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer rights. Last year, the group faced questions for naming Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali-born ex-Muslim author and former Dutch politician, and Maajid Nawaz, the founder of a British anti-extremism think tank, to its list of “anti-Muslim extremists.” In 2015, the group apologized for putting Ben Carson, who is now the secretary of Housing and Urban Development, on its list of extremists.

More recently, critics have said the organization puts too much blame on Trump for intolerance that also was there during the Obama administration.

The Los Angeles Times sat down with…

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