The University of Virginia this week banned Jason Kessler, the organizer of last summer’s deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, from its campus and facilities following what the university described as multiple reports from students that Kessler threatened them.
The move Thursday evening followed two disturbances in the past eight days involving Kessler at the school’s law library.
Kessler, a U-Va. graduate and resident of Charlottesville, visited the library April 18 and was soon followed by students and others telling him to leave and holding up signs saying, “Blood on Your Hands” and “Murderer.” Kessler said in a video he posted on Twitter that protesters were alerted to his presence by a library employee.
On social media that day, Kessler referred to the protesters as “stalkers” and “Alt-Left scumbags” who were harassing him. He also posted lengthy videos of his interactions with the protesters and with police officers who were called to monitor the situation. He was not asked that day to leave the library.
The following day, law school students and others gathered at a town hall meeting to express their anger and frustration that Kessler was permitted to use the library. Some of the students expressed concern because one of their law school classmates is a plaintiff in a lawsuit against Kessler.
Kessler, who is not a current U-Va. student, returned to the law library Wednesday afternoon, and protesters again voiced their opposition to his presence. One protester, Eric Martin, was asked to leave by a school administrator. Martin, who is not a student, refused to go and was arrested by university police and charged with trespassing.
On his Twitter feed Wednesday, Kessler wrote that a library employee “has once again called a lynch mob against me while I’m trying to study.” He also posted video of Martin’s arrest.
The Wednesday incident prompted law school Dean Risa L. Goluboff to order that access to the library be limited to students, faculty and staff. In an email to the law school community, she wrote that her highest priority was “to ensure the physical safety and security of our community.” She also said she would explore other measures that could be taken.
“These two trying events have caused much distress,” Goluboff wrote. “I share in that distress, and I am devoting my full attention to these matters.”
By Thursday evening, administrators had decided to issue a no-trespassing warning to Kessler.
“The warning was issued due to multiple reports from students that Mr. Kessler threatened them, targeted them through cyber-bullying and cyber-harassment, and targeted them based on protected characteristics,” university officials said in a statement. Their statement also referenced the events of August, saying that “Kessler also intentionally and purposefully misled officers of the University Police Department regarding the torchlight rally that he helped organize on Aug. 11.”
Kessler did not respond to an interview request or questions that were emailed to him. He posted a video Friday on Twitter in which he dismissed the allegations against him and said that he was being harassed by students and university employees and that his attorneys would handle the matter.
“You better believe that I’m going to fight this stuff,” Kessler said in the video. “I’m not going to let them get away with this.”
It is unclear what legal grounds Kessler would have for challenging the no-trespass order.
“The important question in this case is whether established university policies were applied to Kessler in a fair and evenhanded way,” Keith E. Whittington, professor of politics at Princeton University and author of “Speak Freely: Why Universities Must Defend Free Speech,” wrote in an email. “If he is being singled out for exclusion simply because he is thought to represent a repugnant set of ideas, then that would be quite troubling.”
But, Whittington said, if Kessler has engaged in behavior that violated university rules or proved disruptive, the university “would be acting quite appropriately in barring him from campus.”
In an interview, the protester who was arrested at the library said he went there in response to students who said they felt unsafe because of Kessler’s presence.
“I couldn’t believe that someone who had brought violence to the campus had not been banned,” Martin said. “I told them I would leave if they insisted that he leave, too, but they only chose to remove me.” Martin, who lives in Charlottesville and is a doctoral student at Fordham University, said he was told at his booking he was indefinitely banned from campus.
Kessler has been an incendiary figure in Charlottesville before and after the Unite the Right rally he organized in August, which exploded into violent confrontations between white supremacists and counterprotesters and drew widespread condemnation. James Fields, a self-described neo-Nazi, has been charged with murder after police say he drove his car into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer and injuring 35 others.
On his Twitter account a week later, Kessler wrote, “Heather Heyer was a fat, disgusting Communist. Communists have killed 94 million. Looks like it was payback time.” He deleted the tweet, but he has repeatedly expressed animosity toward Charlottesville, the city council there, the legal system and those who criticize his views.
In March, Kessler filed a federal lawsuit against Charlottesville for denying a permit to hold a Unite the Right anniversary rally this August. And on April 20, he posted on the social media site Gab that Fields is innocent of the charges against him.
“I’ve stumbled across evidence that shows beyond a reasonable doubt that James Fields is innocent of murder,” he wrote. “When the trial happens in November, Charlottesville is going to be the center of the biggest shock since George Zimmerman was found not guilty of murdering Trayvon. The [authorities] are going to need to look into riot prevention measures.”
Leanne Chia, a second-year law student at U-Va., said she and others were upset that Kessler “intruded into our community and our space.” Chia was present at last year’s Unite the Right rally and saw the car plow into the crowd. She said Kessler is seeking attention, and while the law students did not want to feed into that, they wanted him removed and banned because he had caused a commotion and made students uncomfortable.
“What he represents is repugnant,” Chia said.
A third-year law student who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said the university’s ban against Kessler sends a strong message. But she worried the move might also provoke Kessler’s supporters and draw more of them to campus.
The student said Kessler’s free-speech rights were not being violated, because “he has a history of coming to our campus with lit tiki torches and violently threatening our students.”
“The threat of physical harm outweighs the free-speech issue,” she said.