Two newly filed lawsuits against the white nationalists and others who descended on Charlottesville during a summer rally aim to prevent the type of violent chaos that unfolded from happening again.
One of the lawsuits was filed Thursday in Charlottesville Circuit Court on behalf of the city, local businesses and neighborhood associations. It accuses organizers of the August “Unite the Right” rally, leading figures in the white nationalist movement and their organizations, as well as private militia groups and their leaders, of violating Virginia law by organizing and acting as paramilitary units.
It doesn’t seek monetary damages but asks for a court order prohibiting “illegal paramilitary activity.”
“Touted as an opportunity to protest the removal of a controversial Confederate statue, the event quickly escalated well beyond such constitutionally protected expression,” the lawsuit says. “Instead, private military forces transformed an idyllic college town into a virtual combat zone.”
Separately, 11 residents injured in the violence filed a lawsuit overnight in federal court in Charlottesville against a number of rally leaders and attendees. News of that lawsuit was first reported by The Washington Post.
The rally drew hundreds of white nationalists to Charlottesville, as well as hundreds of counterprotesters. The two sides began brawling in the streets before the rally got underway, throwing punches, unleashing chemical sprays and setting off smoke bombs. At least one person fired a gun. Later, a woman was killed when a car drove into a crowd protesting the white nationalists.
The lawsuit filed in state court reconstructs the events of the day in detail, citing social media posts of the defendants, media accounts and documents.
It says the white nationalist organizations weren’t functioning as individuals exercising their Second Amendment right to self-defense but as members of a “fighting force.”
It asks that they be held in violation of several state laws, including falsely assuming the functions of peace officers. Otherwise, the lawsuit says, “Charlottesville will be forced to relive the frightful spectacle of August 12: an invasion of roving paramilitary bands and unaccountable vigilante peacekeepers.”
The plaintiffs are being represented by the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at Georgetown University and regional law firm MichieHamlett. The Charlottesville City Council voted to join the lawsuit in a special session Thursday morning.
“Our community was invaded by private armies on August 12 and lives were lost,” local attorney Lee Livingston said in a statement. “As we search for answers and a way forward together, we expect this suit will unify us on at least one thing – a stand against private armies invading the public square – and give our public servants who enforce the law a tool to protect all citizens who gather in public places.”
The federal lawsuit takes a different approach, accusing the white nationalists of violating state and federal civil rights laws. It seeks a jury trial and asks for monetary damages and a ban on similar gatherings.
“The aim of this lawsuit is to ensure that nothing like this will happen again at the hands of Defendants — not on the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia, and not anywhere else in the United States of America,” it says.
The plaintiffs include University of Virginia students, ministers and doctors. One suffered a stroke; two were struck in the car attack.
Their attorneys are Robbie Kaplan, who represented Edith Windsor in the landmark Supreme Court case on gay marriage, and Karen Dunn, a former federal prosecutor in Virginia.
White nationalist Richard Spencer, a defendant in the federal lawsuit, told The Associated Press he had just learned of it and didn’t have any immediate comment.
Michael Hill, president of the Southern nationalist League of the South — which is named in both lawsuits — declined comment.
No other defendants in the cases, including Jason Kessler, the rally’s lead organizer, responded to requests for comment from the AP.
Floyd Abrams, a prominent First Amendment attorney, said the defendants “will certainly claim that everything they did, everything they said, and every action that they took was protected by the First Amendment.”
Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, a leading civil liberties lawyer, cited the First Amendment in calling the lawsuits “very dangerous.”
“Everybody hates — as I do — what the white supremacists did in Charlottesville, and because we hate what they did, we may be willing to stretch and bend the First Amendment,” he said. “I’m not willing to do this. The First Amendment was designed precisely to protect this kind of unpopular and hateful expression.”
But Micah Schwartzman, who teaches constitutional law at the University of Virginia, noted that both lawsuits anticipate claims that the defendants’ actions were constitutionally protected and respond to them with evidence.
“These complaints are sophisticated in that way,” he said.
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