In the hours after last summer’s white power rally in Charlottesville, Va., erupted into violence, the planners of the protest mounted a defense: While much of the country may have found their racist chants and Nazi iconography deplorable, they claimed that they had a First Amendment right to self-expression, and that none of the bloodshed was actually their fault.
Six months later, that narrative of blamelessness, which started on the airwaves and the internet, is now being tested in the courthouse. In a direct assault on the so-called alt-right movement, a sprawling lawsuit contends that the leaders of the Charlottesville gathering engaged in a conspiracy to foster racial hatred, and are legally responsible for the 30 injuries and the death of a woman, Heather Heyer, that occurred.
“There is one thing about this case that should be made crystal-clear at the outset,” the suit maintains. “The violence in Charlottesville was no accident.”
The case, known as Sines v. Kessler, was filed in October in Federal District Court in Charlottesville, and reached a crucial stage two weeks ago when the 15 individual defendants and the groups they represent finished filing motions to dismiss the case. In hundreds of pages of impassioned argument, the court submissions indicate that a bitter legal battle will soon be underway.
The nine named plaintiffs — students, clergy members and local residents who say they were hurt in Charlottesville — have accused the event’s leaders of plotting to deprive them of their civil rights by encouraging their followers to arm themselves and partake in violence. (Heather Heyer’s family is not among the plaintiffs.)
The defendants — an array of neo-Nazis, white identitarians and old-line pro-Confederates — have ridiculed the charges as an act of “lawfare” maliciously intended to silence them and destroy them financially.
“The goal here is to break us and keep us from taking to the streets,” said Jeff Schoep, the leader of the National Socialist Movement. “That should concern all Americans, no matter where you stand on the political spectrum.”
As the case moves forward, it is likely to explore the limits of the First Amendment’s broad free-speech provisions and the principle that incitements to violence are not protected. Discovery in the case may also expose the links between the far-right groups and their often opaque sources of financing.
Though all of the plaintiffs live in Virginia, the suit was conceived and filed by a New York lawyer, Roberta A. Kaplan. She successfully argued another high-profile case, United States v. Windsor, in which the Supreme Court struck down part of the Defense of Marriage Act in 2013.
After the Charlottesville rally exploded into chaos, Ms. Kaplan started thinking of a lawsuit modeled on the one brought 20 years ago against the Nuremberg Files, a website where anti-abortion activists posted the names and addresses of doctors who performed abortions. That suit used civil conspiracy law to prove that the website had led to the murder of doctors, and resulted in a judgment of more than $100 million. Though the damages were eventually reduced, the site was taken down.
“I thought you could bring a suit under that same strategy,” Ms. Kaplan said, “against the groups in Charlottesville.”
Most of the defendants are being represented by two less prominent lawyers: James Kolenich, who is based in Cincinnati, and Elmer Woodard, who works in the Virginia countryside about two hours south of Charlottesville.
Before the current case, Mr. Kolenich had never represented a member of the alt-right, a far-right fringe movement that embraces white nationalism and is often anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic and anti-women.
He said he was introduced to his clients by James Condit Jr., a Cincinnati sports memorabilia dealer who once ran for Congress in Ohio; during his campaign, Mr. Condit gave interviews on YouTube about the “Criminal Zionist World Order.”
Mr. Woodard came to the civil case by representing one of its defendants, Christopher Cantwell, in a criminal matter stemming from the Charlottesville events: Mr. Cantwell, who was featured in a Vice News documentary on Charlottesville, was charged with assault. At an early court appearance for Mr. Cantwell, Mr. Woodard wore a bow tie, a Victorian-era waistcoat and a Jazz Age boater hat.
In order to prove that a conspiracy existed, the plaintiffs’ lawyers will have to show that the leaders of the rally worked together in planning and encouraging racially motivated violence. Under the law, if a conspiracy is eventually established, all of its participants can be held accountable for the actions of its separate members.
Among the lawsuit’s oddities is that well before the case was filed, a body of evidence was already public that at least seemed to suggest a conspiracy. In advance of the rally, several of its leaders blithely posted instructions for the protest on their social media accounts, including Facebook, Twitter and a chatting application called Discord. On Aug. 10, the day before the march, someone leaked a trove of messages from Discord to the alternative media website Unicorn Riot, which ultimately published them online without naming the source.
Ms. Kaplan called those leaked communications “a lawyer’s gift,” and she used them in drafting her complaint. They seemed to show a Discord channel for the rally filled with calls for violence.
“I’m ready to crack skulls,” one person wrote. Others said they planned to go to Charlottesville with wrenches, pipes and wooden sticks. One man claimed he was going with a cache of rifles that “will shoot clean through a crowd at least four deep.” There were also plans to shuttle people to the rally grounds in what was called a “Hate Van.”
One of the defendants, Michael Peinovich, the co-host of a podcast called “The Daily Shoah,” downplayed the Discord messages as “idle chitchat” in his motion to dismiss. “Edgy humor and memes are part of Internet subculture,” Mr. Peinovich wrote, “and while some may not understand them, and some may find them offensive, the sharing of such jokes and memes cannot credibly be seen as evidence of a conspiracy to commit violence.”
Another defendant, Richard B. Spencer, one of the country’s most prominent white supremacists, wrote in his dismissal motion that “harsh and bold words, as well as scuffles, are simply a reality of political protests.”
Mr. Spencer, who is representing himself after several lawyers refused to take him as client, went on to say: “Free societies, not only in the United States, but around the world, accept this as a cost of free assembly and maintaining a vibrant political culture.”
The chief planner of the Charlottesville event, Jason Kessler, wrote in an email this month that even though he was initially concerned about the lawsuit, he now considers it an opportunity to “go on offense.” Mr. Kessler said he plans to use the case to attack the “hoax narrative” that the right-wing marchers were responsible for the violence.
“After all the lies about the event are laid out before the public and they realize how badly some very powerful people wanted to shut down our free speech rally,” he wrote, “I think the public will be hungrier than ever to hear what we actually went there to say.”
The federal suit is not the only litigation the protest leaders are facing. A similar but narrower personal injury complaint was filed against the same defendants in Charlottesville Circuit Court shortly after the rally ended. And in October, several far-right leaders and militia groups were sued in the circuit court in a complaint that aims to use Virginia’s anti-paramilitary laws to enjoin armed mobs from marching in the city.
Opponents of the far right are turning to the courts in large part because the political establishment has failed to address the movement’s rising power, according to Dmitri Mehlhorn of Integrity First for America, a group founded recently to finance civil rights and abuse-of-power litigation, among other activities. Sines v. Kessler is the first lawsuit the group has underwritten.
In a different political climate, Mr. Mehlhorn said, the Justice Department’s civil rights division might have investigated and sued the planners of the Charlottesville protest.
But, he added, “These days, we do not expect the Justice Department or government lawyers to pursue any of these actions.”
Some experts on far-right extremism question whether the lawsuit will reveal anything beyond what is already known about the far-right groups, that they are hardly rich and tend to crowdsource what money they get.
But others, like Lawrence Rosenthal, director of the Center for Right-Wing Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, said he welcomed the effort because the sources of far-right money have been unclear for years.
Professor Rosenthal said that rather than ruin the far-right groups, the lawsuit may just push them off the streets and back on to the internet, where they existed quietly for years.
“Because the world is cyber,” he said, “it’s tough to put people entirely out of business.”
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