'Reckless': Sarasota School Board's Bridget Ziegler rebuts Moms for Liberty 'extremist' label

Chairwoman Bridget Ziegler as seen at a Sarasota County school board meeting Tuesday night Nov. 29, 2022.
Chairwoman Bridget Ziegler as seen at a Sarasota County school board meeting Tuesday night Nov. 29, 2022.

In response to the Southern Poverty Law Center's labeling of Moms For Liberty as an extremist group, Bridget Ziegler, the chair of the Sarasota School Board and one of the group's co-founders, questioned the organization's credibility, calling the label "reckless."

Moms for Liberty, a right-wing activist group founded in Florida by Ziegler and former Brevard County School Board member Tina Descovich, and 11 other groups were labeled by the Southern Poverty Law Center as "anti-government extremist groups," according to a report released by the group Tuesday. The group has been active in Sarasota's School Board politics and policies, endorsing two of the three conservative board candidates in August's election and having members speak at various school board meetings in support of parental rights in education.

The SPLC, a civil rights advocacy nonprofit organization, detailed the new designations in its annual 2022 Year in Hate and Extremism report. The SPLC’s standard criteria for determining if a group is anti-government is spelled out on its website:

“An anti-government group is an organization or collection of individuals that — based on its official statements or principles, the statements of its leaders, or its activities — believes the federal government is tyrannical and traffics in conspiracy theories about an illegitimate government of leftist elites seeking a ‘New World Order.’”

When asked for comment in response to the label, Ziegler told the Herald-Tribune she felt the SPLC had no merit, and called the label "laughable."

"The Southern Poverty Law Group is not a legitimate organization with any merit," Ziegler said. "Outside of it being a leftist attack, political hit job, there's no credibility behind it. It's truly laughable."

She said other organizations have sued the SPLC for defamation and she hopes the organizations labeled in the report challenge them legally.

"They're utilizing the term hate group in a very reckless manner and I think that they should be held accountable," she said.

The SPLC did not label the organization a hate group, but added it to a list of "anti-government" extremist groups. That puts them in the company of groups such as the Oath Keepers.

The SPLC paid $3.38 million and issued public apologies to Maajid Nawazan, an Islamic activist and the founder of the Quilliam Foundation, to avoid a defamation lawsuit after the SPLC labeled him and others as “anti-Muslim extremists.”

Alexis Spiegelman, the Sarasota chapter chair of Moms for Liberty, said the mission of the group is to protect parental rights in education, which she said were "God-given and fundamental."

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"You'd have to ask, what kind of government are (SPLC) advocating for? Because we're just pushing back against government overreach and a tyrannical form of government that does not align with our founding principles or constitution," she said.

Spiegelman said the SPLC can expect continued advocacy from Moms for Liberty, regardless of labels.

"If they think that using the Saul Alinsky-style method of the ad hominem is going to stop parents from advocating for their children, they're wrong," Spiegelman said.

The 12 new groups added to the SPLC's roundup brought the total number of active "extremist" groups listed in the 2022 report to 1,225 nationwide. Of those, the SPLC designates 702 as anti-government groups and 523 as hate groups. That’s almost flat from 2021 when the SPLC counted 1,221 extremist groups.

The SPLC is one of the most widely recognized research organizations tracking hate and extremism in the United States. Being added to its watchlist means almost certain notoriety. Over the years, the center has brought new focus to self-described militias, anti-immigrant groups and outright hate groups. The SPLC has also sued hate groups and individual extremists in the civil courts, often with great success.

The Florida-headquartered Moms for Liberty has hit the headlines across the country since its founding in 2021.

The SPLC study concludes the group is part of a broader anti-government movement focused on local politics that sprung up during the coronavirus pandemic.

Founded by three Florida Republicans, the “social-welfare” nonprofit group can engage in political activity without disclosing its financial backers.

The group pitched itself as a potent grassroots movement of outraged parents, many of whom weren’t active in school politics until COVID-19 restrictions forced them to pay attention. It has sprouted local chapters in at least 40 states, claims more than 100,000 members and has the ear of the Republican establishment: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has championed their efforts to restrict teaching about race in schools and universities. Critics in Florida slam the group for turning schools into a political battlefield.

That influence solidified the group’s position in national politics. At the end of this month, barely two years after the group came into existence, both DeSantis and former President Donald Trump will speak at Moms for Liberty’s national summit in Philadelphia and may now compete to win the Moms for Liberty vote.

Despite the national profile, these organizations spread conspiracy theories and operate on the myth that educators are engaged in “Marxist indoctrination” of the nation’s children by imbuing them with dangerous ideas about equality and sexuality, the SPLC said.

While the movement may be reasonably new, it is founded on the same traditional racist, misogynist and homophobic views that brought people out to protest the desegregation of schools in the 1950s and '60s, the SPLC argues.

“Over the past two years, reactionary anti-student inclusion groups have been popping up from coast to coast, claiming to battle for parents’ rights. Just like their predecessors, their rhetoric takes on marked anti-LGBTQ, racist and nationalist themes, excluding from their parental concern large demographic segments of American society,” the report states. “These groups publicize their fight for alleged parents’ rights while simply attempting to maintain absolute authority on issues they oppose.”

The primary focus of these groups has been twofold: They have fought against curriculums that teach about America’s racist and violent history and have more recently taken aim at any educational efforts to teach children about LGBTQ issues. To attract attention and seek new followers, groups like Moms for Liberty promote the false claim that left-wing teachers and educators are engaged in a conspiracy to “sexualize” or even “groom” the schoolchildren under their care.

It’s a narrative that has had significant success, the SPLC notes.

Moms for Liberty alone claims to have “flipped” 17 school boards nationwide to parental-rights supportive majorities, the report states. “Almost immediately following elections, many of these boards began making sweeping changes at school board meetings, such as firing superintendents and making curriculum changes,” the researchers found.

In Sarasota, Moms for Liberty-backed candidates helped overturn the ideological makeup of the school board, where a new, conservative-leaning board took over and immediately moved to fire the sitting superintendent Brennan Asplen.

This story includes reporting from USA TODAY reporter Will Carless.

Follow Herald-Tribune Education Reporter Steven Walker on Twitter at @swalker_7. He can be reached at sbwalker@gannett.com.

This article originally appeared on Sarasota Herald-Tribune: Moms for Liberty co-founder defends group after SPLC 'extremist' label