The leader of the Southern Poverty Law Center said the organization condemns the antifa movement but won't brand it with the center's often-cited "hate group" designation.
Richard Cohen, the president of the SPLC, told the Washington Examiner the loosely organized antifa movement, short for anti-fascism, is "wrongheaded" in opposing free speech and using violence.
"We oppose these groups and what they're trying to do. We just don't think anyone should be able to censor someone else's speech," Cohen said, echoing and endorsing recent statements from progressive scholar Noam Chomsky.
"We think they are contributing to the problem we are seeing," Cohen said. "We think it's likely to lead to other forms of retaliation. In Berkeley, antifa showed up and shut down speeches. The next time the white supremacists brought the Oath Keepers with them, they brought their own army."
He said, however, the SPLC won't label antifa a "hate group" because adherents do not discriminate against people on the basis of race, sexual orientation or other classes protected by antidiscrimination laws, such as religion.
"There might be forms of hate out there that you may consider hateful, but it's not the type of hate we follow," Cohen said.
Antifa activism generally but not always features black-clad activists confronting adversaries they deem fascist, such as neo-Nazis or white supremacists. The movement is decentralized, and Cohen notes in many cases it lacks discernible organization, though he said that's not the reason against a hate-group designation.
Cohen said the SPLC does work to inform local police about the intentions of antifa activists and intends to speak out against the movement, adding "we follow them, but we don't track them in the same way."
The SPLC is controversial among some conservatives for its influential hate-group designations, which some on the list call unfair. The socially conservative Family Research Council was attacked in 2012 by a gunman who told investigators he saw the group listed on the center's website.
Cohen said he rejects criticism from "so-called mainstream groups like the Family Research Council" and that "we list those groups because they're spreading demonizing lies about the LGBT community and vilifying them, it's not because they oppose gay marriage."
Despite criticism, the center has benefited from a windfall of attention and financial support.
Apple CEO Tim Cook pledged $1 million to the group last month following clashes in Charlottesville, Va., between Confederate monument supporters and anti-racism activists, which culminated in an alleged white supremacists driving into a crowd, killing one person. J.P. Morgan Chase pledged $500,000.
The Washington Free Beacon reported that the group has invested millions of dollars overseas, including in lightly regulated jurisdictions such as the Cayman Islands. The SPLC reported more than $50 million in contributions and $328 million in net assets in a 2015 filing with the Internal Revenue Service.
"I know of no legitimate reason for any U.S.-based nonprofit to put money in overseas, unregulated bank accounts." Amy Sterling Casil, CEO of nonprofit consulting firm Pacific Human Capital, told the Free Beacon.
Cohen called criticism of the center's investments "ridiculous."
"We have an endowment in order to fund our work far into the future [and] it is extremely common for universities, foundations and other nonprofit organizations with endowments to have investments in offshore vehicles." he said. "The funds in which we invest are reputable ones."