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A group claiming to protect parents' rights in public schools is labeled as extremist

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

A group that bills itself as concerned mothers protecting conservative values in public schools has now been labeled an extremist organization. The Southern Poverty Law Center is out today with its annual "Year In Hate & Extremism" report. It looks at trends of 2022. The decision to designate Moms for Liberty as extremist comes even as that organization continues to push with some success for changes to school curricula and state laws. NPR domestic extremism correspondent Odette Yousef joins me to discuss. Hey, Odette.

ODETTE YOUSEF, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.

KELLY: OK. Tell me more about this group, Moms for Liberty. Where are they concentrated? How do they operate? What do we know?

YOUSEF: So Moms for Liberty is a tax-exempt social welfare nonprofit organization that says it's working to defend parental rights at all levels of government. And where we've really seen them active, Mary Louise, is at the school board level. The group is highly active in Florida, Pennsylvania, the Carolinas. And it was established more than two years ago by some Florida women who were upset about COVID safety measures at schools. But since then, they've expanded their agenda to push back against inclusive curricula about Black history, Black authors and gender identity. And in some places, the group has gotten books banned from classrooms and libraries.

KELLY: And how big is this group? What kind of reach are we talking?

YOUSEF: They claim to have over 100,000 members across the country. And they say their funding comes primarily from T-shirt sales. But Mary Louise, there's skepticism about both of those claims. What we do know is that the group has enjoyed connections with some very powerful and deep-pocketed people in conservative politics.

KELLY: And so what is it about them - about Moms for Liberty that has landed them with the label of extremist?

YOUSEF: Well, the SPLC says Moms for Liberty is an anti-student inclusion group. And they have drawn some parallels with segregationist parent groups that grew in the wake of the Brown v. Board of Education decision of the 1950s. Of course, Mary Louise, you know, that was a Supreme Court case that integrated public schools. Rachel Carroll Rivas of the SPLC says the group's work undermines inclusive democracy and the public education system as a whole. And that's not all.

RACHEL CARROLL RIVAS: Their organizing is quite concerning for how it harms communities but also because of the associations with other hard-right groups that they've really had since their inception. And that includes hate groups that we list on our list, like Proud Boys.

KELLY: Proud Boys, huh - OK, Odette Yousef, tell me more about those associations. How would Moms for Liberty associate with a far-right group like Proud Boys?

YOUSEF: Well, after January 6, Mary Louise, you know, the riot at the Capitol, the Proud Boys refocused their efforts to local culture wars. And they found common cause with Moms for Liberty on restricting educational materials at schools. But in a statement to NPR, Moms for Liberty is pushing back against this SPLC label. Their co-founders say that the mission continues to be, quote, "empowering parents" and that they reject labels such as hate group and bigoted.

KELLY: Yeah. Well, now that the group has this label from the SPLC attached to it, what's that going to mean, just briefly?

YOUSEF: Well, for some on the right, this might be touted as a badge of honor. It'll be interesting to see how Republican politicians respond because at the end of the month, Mom for Liberties (ph) will be having their annual conference in Philadelphia, including speakers such as former President Donald Trump and presidential candidates Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley.

KELLY: NPR's Odette Yousef, thank you.

YOUSEF: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Odette Yousef
Odette Yousef is a National Security correspondent focusing on extremism.