White supremacist's battles with state prove wrong is sometimes right

By Douglas Lee
Lawyer, Ehrmann Gehlbach Badger & Lee
Matthew Hale...
Matthew Hale

Matthew Hale is a hate-filled, ignorant, self-aggrandizing racist. Jim Ryan is a generous, dedicated, self-deprecating public servant. Hale is the leader of a white-supremacist organization. Ryan is the attorney general of Illinois.

Hale, a well-dressed punk, claims that Ryan's recent lawsuit against Hale's organization is an attempt to punish the group for its beliefs. Ryan, a courageous cancer survivor, insists that his lawsuit is designed only to protect the public from deceptive fund raising. Hale, unfortunately, is right, and Ryan, unfortunately, is wrong.

Ryan last week sued Hale's World Church of the Creator to determine whether the group is a "charity" under Illinois law and therefore required to register with Ryan's office. If required to register, the World Church would be forced to annually account for its fund raising and spending activities. When filing the suit, Ryan denied any relationship between the lawsuit and the group's offensive speech, claiming instead to care solely about the propriety of the organization's fund-raising techniques.

Ryan can monitor these techniques only if the court finds the World Church to be a charity. Ryan apparently believes that, under Illinois law, any nonprofit organization that engages in fund raising is a charity. The law, however, is not as clear as Ryan interprets it, and Hale says he relied on legal advice when he decided not to register his group four years ago. If Ryan's lawsuit is successful, the court could freeze the World Church's assets, fine it up to $1,000 and prohibit it from further fund raising until it registered. If the suit is unsuccessful, Ryan has said he will investigate whether the group has solicited funds under false pretenses.

If anyone is operating under false pretenses, however, it is Ryan, not Hale. While Ryan insists that he is not pursuing the World Church because of its speech, the evidence is to the contrary.

Most telling is the timing of Ryan's suit, which was filed within days of an extensive media blitz examining the link between Hale and Benjamin Smith, a World Church member who killed two people and injured nine others during a shooting spree over the Fourth of July weekend. Hale — recognizing that it's impossible for a hate group to receive bad publicity — skillfully used the media not only to establish that Smith's actions were contrary to World Church doctrine but also to spread the organization's beliefs. Ryan's lawsuit almost certainly was a reaction to Hale's recent celebrity.

Additional evidence of Ryan's true intent is found in the announcement of the lawsuit. While Ryan claimed to be protecting the public from fraudulent fundraising, he did not identify any member of the public who has been misled by Hale's group. The World Church can be accused of many things, but disguising its message is not one of them. Its written materials and its Web site — www.creator.org — clearly (if illogically) set forth the group's core beliefs. Ryan argues that the World Church is not a true religion and therefore is misleading the public. The World Church, however, makes no secret of its disbelief in God and heaven and, given its message, seems unlikely to mislead even the most naive of potential donors.

Ryan is not the only Illinois official who has been unable to resist the temptation to punish Hale for his speech. Hale first burst onto the national scene in February, after an Illinois bar committee denied his application for a law license. The committee cited Hale's racist beliefs as justifying the denial and, in the process, created a First Amendment martyr. Hale made the most of the attention, even publicly flirting with Alan Dershowitz about whether Dershowitz would handle Hale's appeal.

Hale and Dershowitz ultimately decided that arguing with each other via split-screen television was not enough to sustain an attorney-client relationship, so Hale's appeal went on without Dershowitz's help. An Illinois bar panel denied the appeal late last month, again placing Hale's views in the center of the public spotlight.

In less than six months, Illinois officials have done for Hale what he never could have done for himself: They legitimized his beliefs and made him the victim rather than the oppressor. They did this by violating a fundamental First Amendment principle: They attacked Hale's right to speak rather than Hale's speech itself. As a result, the focus shifted from the content of Hale's racist speech to the right of the government to punish it.

This, of course, is the focus preferred by Matthew Hale. As evil as he is, he isn't stupid. When he learned of Ryan's lawsuit, for example, he happily predicted that it would increase his group's visibility and membership.

Unfortunately, he's probably right.

Douglas Lee is a partner in the Dixon, Ill., law firm of Ehrmann Gehlbach Beckman Badger & Lee and a legal correspondent for the First Amendment Center.