Aug 20, 2017

The legal fallout from Charlottesville

Lazaro Gamio / Axios

The clashes between far-right hate groups and counter protesters in Charlottesville have spurred national conversations about the First Amendment and its limits. What was initially publicized as a lawful protest of the removal of Confederate General Robert E. Lee's statue quickly turned violent when a man drove his car into a crowd of counter protesters and took Heather Heyer's life. The aftermath of the violence has pushed lawyers and investigators into largely uncharted territory.

The cases

Charlottesville began with a court case.

  • The ACLU of Virginia defended the "Unite the Right" organizers right to assemble.
  • The organization's original statement said, "The ACLU of Virginia stands for the right to free expression for all, not just those whose opinions are in the mainstream or with whom the government agrees."

Two sisters are suing.

  • They're going after rally organizer Jason Kessler, driver James Alex Fields Jr. and 28 other defendants for $3 million in damages.
  • Fields Jr. hit Tadrint and Micah Washington's car when he accelerated to mow down a crowd of people last Saturday.
  • One of the sisters' attorneys told the Washington Post that they will use what white nationalists have said in the media to demonstrate that rally organizers conspired to "inspire mayhem, homicide and violence."

A man misidentified as the driver plans to sue.

  • His lawsuit is against the far-right websites which publicized a false story — first reported by GotNews — that he was behind the wheel of the car that killed Heyer.
  • Joel Vangheluwe was not in Virginia at the time, and far-right news sites said he committed the crime because he is a critic of Donald Trump.
  • His attorney told CNN that Vangheluwe and his family had been harassed as result of the false accusation.
  • "My message to those outlets is that if your words can cause great harm, and has caused great harm, you must suffer the consequences of the law as a result," the attorney said.

The precedent

One existing case points to the same issues that are being discussed after Charlottesville.

  • In April, the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a lawsuit against Andrew Anglin, the publisher of the Daily Stormer, for launching a "terror campaign" against Tanya Gersh, a Jewish woman.
  • Anglin published Gersh's contact information online and encouraged Daily Stormer readers to "take action" against her, per NYT.
  • "While Gersh isn't the first person to sue for online harassment, hers is the first lawsuit to go after someone for inciting a troll storm, in which an individual purposefully mobilizes an online mob," Vice reports.

Uncharted territory

  • The ACLU updated its position on defending "Unite the Right" protesters on Friday, releasing a statement that they will no longer defend the rights of protesters who plan to march with firearms. "The First Amendment absolutely does not protect white supremacists seeking to incite or engage in violence," they said.
  • Attorney General Jeff Sessions used the words "domestic terrorism" when describing the Charlottesville violence on Good Morning America. Days later, Sessions said the case against Fields could also be prosecuted as a hate crime.
  • "Still, it may be difficult to prove that [Fields Jr.] was motivated by one of the characteristics protected by the hate crimes statute, like race," Charlie Savage of the New York Times writes. "[H]atred of people because of their political views is not specifically mentioned in the law. Although several of the surviving victims are black, [Heyer] was white."
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