In a significant ruling Monday, a U.S. district judge decided that a massive lawsuit against some of America’s most prominent white supremacists can proceed.
In his ruling, senior U.S. District Judge Norman Moon found that a lawsuit against over two dozen white supremacists and affiliated groups responsible for violence at last year’s “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia — which saw one white supremacist kill Heather Heyer, a counter-protester — can proceed to discovery, and then to a trial in July 2019.
The plaintiffs “plausibly alleged the Defendants formed a conspiracy to commit the racial violence that led to the Plaintiffs’ varied injuries,” Moon wrote in his 62-page ruling. “The Court concludes Plaintiffs have, for the most part, adequately alleged that Defendants formed a conspiracy to hurt black and Jewish individuals, and their supporters, because of their race at the August 11th and 12th events.”
The lawsuit was brought on behalf of a number of plaintiffs by Integrity First for America, an organization dedicated to defending and promoting democratic norms and equal rights alike.
— Integrity First for America (@IntegrityforUSA) July 9, 2018
“Both our clients and the lawyers are thrilled by this,” Robbie Kaplan, co-lead attorney for the plaintiffs, told ThinkProgress. Added Karen Dunn, another co-lead attorney for the plaintiffs, in a statement, “We look forward to continuing with discovery and to bringing our client’s claims to trial this time next year.”
In his ruling, Moon backed the plaintiffs’ claims that the white supremacists — including organizer Jason Kessler, as well as Richard Spencer and Matthew Heimbach, faces of the so-called “alt-right” movement — conspired to commit racist and anti-Semitic violence.
Moon also wrote that that the defendants’ concomitant claims of “free speech” defense weren’t sufficient. For instance, as Moon wrote about Kessler:
The complaint plausibly alleges that Defendant Kessler entered into agreements with these other Defendants for the purpose of assaulting and intimidating individuals who were counter-protesting Defendants’ message of white supremacy. As discussed below, many of these actions are completely divorced from any First Amendment protection.
The judge found similarly regarding both Spencer and Heimbach. For Spencer, Moon wrote that the white supremacist “joined a conspiracy to engage in the racially motivated violence,” while Heimbach — who was recently released from prison on an unrelated sentence — “joined the conspiracy to commit racial violence.”
Moon also found that white supremacist Christopher Cantwell — known colloquially as the “Crying Nazi,” on account of his penchant for sobbing — additionally “joined the conspiracy to engage in the racially motivated violence” at the “Unite the Right” events. The only white supremacist who Moon wrote in favor of was Mike Peinovich, whom Moon “dismissed [from the lawsuit] without prejudice.”
In addition to finding insufficient grounds in the defendants’ claims of “free speech,” Moon also noted that defendants’ claims of Second Amendment protections didn’t apply to the Charlottesville violence.
“It was eminently foreseeable to the Defendants that the rally could turn deadly,” Moon wrote. “The fact that a counter-protestor was killed by a vehicle, instead of by the ‘semi-automatic machine guns’ Defendants brought, provides a distinction that makes no difference to this analysis.”
All told, given that the lawsuit was the broadest legal action against young American white supremacists to date — one that reached back to Reconstruction-era laws, no less — the ruling is a massive victory for the plaintiffs, and a massive blow to the reeling faces of the so-called “alt-right.” (It also comes just a few days after Spencer was effectively barred from European travel.)
“In his very careful opinion, I think the judge did an amazing job of kind of carefully dealing with all the arguments that had been made and the complexities of the law in this area,” Kaplan told ThinkProgress. “It’s an incredibly fair-minded, comprehensive job. We’re excited about moving forward.”