A Georgia student who says Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) snatched his cellphone away this month as he tried to ask about possible voter suppression in the state has filed a lawsuit against the lawmaker for battery.
Attorneys for Nathan Knauf, a junior at Georgia Tech, filed the complaint in Fulton County State Court on Monday morning, seeking a jury trial, unspecified damages, attorneys' fees and others costs from Perdue.
Perdue’s office has maintained that the exchange was a misunderstanding and that the senator took the student’s phone to take a selfie. On Monday, Perdue’s office called the lawsuit “outrageous and completely frivolous.”
The incident took place Oct. 13, when Perdue visited Georgia Tech to campaign for Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, a fellow Republican who is locked in a tight gubernatorial race with Democrat Stacey Abrams.
Knauf, a student member of the Young Democratic Socialists of America, approached Perdue and began asking about Kemp — who has been accused of suppressing thousands of minority voters — while recording video on his cellphone.
“Hey, so, uh, how can you endorse a candidate," Knauf began.
Before he could continue, Perdue snatched the phone out of his hands.
“No, I’m not doing that. I’m not doing that,” the senator can be heard saying in the cellphone recording.
“You stole my property,” Knauf tells Perdue. “You stole my property.”
“All right, you wanted a picture?” the senator replies.
“Give me my phone back, Senator,” Knauf says.
“You wanted a picture? I’m going to give it to you,” Perdue continues, ignoring the student’s request. “You wanted a picture?”
“Give me my phone back, Senator,” Knauf repeats.
At this point, the video rights itself again, apparently because Knauf is reunited with his phone. By then, Perdue is walking away on a crowded pedestrian pathway.
The following day, Perdue’s office characterized the exchange as a misunderstanding and said the senator had spent several hours meeting with hundreds of people at a Georgia Tech game over the weekend.
“The senator spoke with many students and answered questions on a variety of topics,” Perdue spokeswoman Casey Black said in a statement at the time. “In this instance, the senator clearly thought he was being asked to take a picture, and he went to take a selfie as he often does. When he realized they didn’t actually want to take a picture, he gave the phone back.”
Knauf’s attorneys said Knauf and two friends had asked Perdue to take a picture with them but had not agreed to hand over his phone. The complaint states that Perdue “could not have thought that Mr. Knauf had somehow changed his mind and now wanted a selfie taken.”
Michael Sterling, one of Knauf’s attorneys, argued that the video evidence does not corroborate Perdue’s explanation.
“This is a first-year law school definition of battery,” Sterling said. “Perdue starts by saying ‘No, I’m not doing that,’ and then snatches the phone. Then Perdue puts the phone behind his back. There’s no actions that are consistent with the fact that he was going to take a selfie. He doesn’t put the phone up. . . . Nate is asking for his phone back. That’s completely inconsistent with [Perdue’s] version of the story.”
Georgia state Rep. David Dreyer (D), another of Knauf’s attorneys, said they opted to file a civil complaint rather than a criminal one.
“We think he should be held accountable, but we didn’t think it rose to the level of trying to have him prosecuted,” Dreyer said of Perdue. “By filing a lawsuit, we are empowering a jury to determine whether Nate’s story is right or whether Senator Perdue’s story is right.”
Knauf’s attorneys said the student would be willing to dismiss the civil complaint if Perdue issued an apology “for both misleading the public and for trying to intimidate him,” and also to answer Knauf’s original question about his support for Kemp.
“The two issues at stake here are [about] democracy: Can an individual, an everyday person, go up to their elected representative and ask a question in a public forum?” Dreyer said. “And does the rule of law apply — whether it’s a college student or a multimillionaire U.S. senator? Because we know if Mr. Knauf had taken the phone from Sen. Perdue, he would have been put in jail.”
In a statement Monday morning, Perdue’s office characterized the lawsuit as one being “politically orchestrated by Georgia Democrats.”
“The senator was simply asked to take a picture and went to take a selfie as he often does with hundreds of people,” Black said. “The senator was also not ignoring their questions, in fact, he had just finished answering several students’ questions about climate change.”
She added: “Sadly, but not surprisingly, this is another attempt by liberal activists to distort the facts and distract the people of Georgia just weeks before an election.”
When asked to respond to the student’s offer to dismiss the complaint if Perdue apologized, the senator’s spokeswoman said in a follow-up statement that “Georgia Democrats have taken their extreme tactics too far" and called Knauf’s attorneys “political hacks who are trying to spin something out of nothing.”
“This is being orchestrated by a former Obama operative and current Democrat state representative who spends most of his time campaigning for Stacey Abrams,” she stated. "Georgians will see this for what it is — a manufactured setup to embarrass the Senator and attack his credibility two weeks before the midterm elections. Instead, Democrats are embarrassing themselves with a frivolous case that will only waste the court’s time.”
The Georgia governor’s race between Kemp and Abrams attracted national scrutiny this month after the Associated Press reported that more than 53,000 voter registration applications were in limbo with Kemp’s office; the overwhelming majority of those applications are from African American and other minority voters, according to an AP analysis.
Abrams has accused Kemp of voter suppression and of using his position to try to swing the gubernatorial race in his favor. Kemp has defended his office by saying it was simply complying with an “exact match” state law that requires election officials to put a registration application on hold if there are even minor discrepancies with existing records (for instance, a typo or an extra hyphen in a name).
The controversy escalated when a coalition of civil rights groups sued Kemp over the exact-match law, arguing that it disproportionately and unfairly affects minority voters.
Polls show the race between Kemp and Abrams is a toss-up.
This post has been updated.