Eleven residents injured in August during violence that sprang from a planned rally by white nationalists in Charlottesville are suing the supremacists, asking for monetary damages and a ban on similar gatherings.
The lawsuit, filed Thursday morning in federal court in Charlottesville, cites laws enacted during Reconstruction to counter intimidation of blacks in the South and more recent cases targeting antiabortion activists.
The complaint accuses Unite the Right rally leaders and organizers — including white nationalists Richard Spencer, Jason Kessler and Matthew Heimbach — of violating state and federal civil rights laws by creating a menacing environment and inciting violence against people based on their race, religion and ethnicity.
The Ku Klux Klan, Vanguard America, the Nationalist Front and the League of the South, all of which support white nationalist or supremacist aims and took part in the rally, are among the three dozen individuals and organizations named in the 113-page complaint.
“The violence in Charlottesville was no accident,” the lawsuit reads. “In countless posts on their own websites and social media, defendants and their co-conspirators promised that there would be violence in Charlottesville and violence there was.”
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit include University of Virginia students, Charlottesville residents and religious leaders who say they were subject to tear gas, physical and verbal assaults and, in one case, were targeted online by white supremacists who posted their photo on a racist website.
Charlottesville exploded into the nation’s consciousness Aug. 11 and 12 when hundreds of white supremacists, white nationalists and neo-Nazis from across the country converged on the small university town to protest the planned removal of a Confederate statue from a city park.
At a nighttime torchlight rally, marchers chanted “Jews will not replace us!” and “Blood and soil!” before engaging in a violent confrontation with a small group of counterprotesters. The next day — a Saturday — the planned rally was canceled by law enforcement as nationalists and counterprotesters brawled on Charlottesville’s downtown streets while police stood back. In midafternoon, James Alex Fields Jr., a 20-year-old Nazi sympathizer, allegedly drove his car into a crowd of pedestrians. Heather Heyer, 32, of Charlottesville was killed, and 19 others were injured.
The case is being brought by a powerhouse legal team: New York attorney Roberta A. Kaplan, who represented Edith Windsor in the landmark Supreme Court case that ordered the federal recognition of same-sex marriage, and Washington attorney Karen Dunn, a former federal prosecutor.
The lawsuit is funded by a new nonprofit, Integrity First for America, that is aimed primarily at bringing legal challenges to President Trump’s businesses. On its website, it says Integrity First “intervenes when political leaders profit off their positions of power or abandon our country’s commitment to civil rights and equal justice for all.”
Defendants Spencer, Kessler and Heimbach did not respond immediately to requests for comment.
Plaintiffs Marissa Blair, 28, and her fiance, Marcus Martin, 27, were standing among counterprotesters on Fourth Street in Charlottesville when Fields allegedly drove his Dodge Challenger into the crowd. Martin pushed Blair out of the way, but he was struck and his leg and ankle were broken.
“I went to look for him, and all I found was his bloody baseball cap. I thought he was dead,” Blair said in an interview Wednesday. “We weren’t doing anything wrong. We were trying to stay away from the front lines.”
“Freedom of speech, we get it,” Blair said. “But not when you’re doing it to terrorize people. There has to be a stop to it. We want to let Charlottesville live in peace.”
Another plaintiff, Hannah Pearce, is a dermatologist who lives in Charlottesville with her husband and four children, all of whom are members of Congregation Beth Israel, a Jewish faith community. After the rally, a photo of Pearce and her son were posted online by the Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi website operated by Andrew Anglin.
Because of her faith, Pearce was “threatened, harassed, intimidated and physically assaulted” as she “peacefully protested” the event with her son, according to the filing. The Daily Stormer and Anglin are listed as defendants in the suit.
The Charlottesville complaint was inspired in part by an Oregon case from the late 1990s in which a group of doctors successfully sued antiabortion activists over a website that targeted doctors who perform abortions. The website did not explicitly threaten violence against the doctors, but listed their names, photos, addresses and license plate numbers.
The lawsuit came at a time when several people working at abortion clinics around the country were killed.
A federal jury ordered the creators of the site to pay more than $100 million to Planned Parenthood and the doctors, an amount reduced on appeal.
The complaint in the Charlottesville case also draws on a federal law from the Reconstruction Era that helped go after the Ku Klux Klan.
“This is creative litigation aimed at getting at a deeply pernicious problem,” said Vanita Gupta, the former head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division.
The Supreme Court has set a high bar when it comes to restricting free speech in the name of preventing violence. The court has allowed inflammatory speech as long as it doesn’t provoke the “imminent” use of force ever since a 1969 case involving the Ku Klux Klan.
“You can say the most horrible things and cause serious emotional distress, and as outrageous and offensive as it is, the First Amendment will protect you,” said John Culhane, who teaches constitutional law at Widener University Delaware Law School.
That protection ends, though, if you provoke an “imminent” act of violence, he said. And even though it’s often a tough case to make, Culhane said counterprotesters in Charlottesville were physically attacked and “the action we feared would happen did happen. That’s pretty powerful.”
One recent lawsuit involving President Trump may test the limits of free speech protections. In April, a federal judge in Kentucky allowed a case to proceed that accuses the president of provoking a campaign crowd to violence.
As a candidate, Trump addressed protesters at the rally, yelling, “Get ’em outta here!” Three of those protesters sued, alleging that Trump’s words prompted his supporters to physically attack them.
Trump’s attorneys have appealed, saying Trump was not speaking to the crowd, but giving instructions to his security detail, and that his remarks cannot be considered “incitement” because he did not mention violence or “lawless action.”
Heimbach, one of the defendants in the Charlottesville lawsuit, is also named as a defendant in the campaign rally lawsuit.
Martin London, one of the attorneys who successfully represented the physicians in the Oregon abortion case, said the challenge in the Virginia case may be showing that the language used was likely to spur a violent reaction.
The courts, he said, “have drawn a very fine and ever-changing line when it comes to incitement speech. It’s a very tough test.”