Jury Awards $26M for Victims of “Unite the Right” Violence
Organizers of the 2017 “Unite the Right” Rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, have been ordered to pay $26 million in damages by a jury.
In August 2017, various groups gathered in Charlottesville to protest the removal of a statute of Robert E. Lee. The protestors carried tiki torches, firearms, and Confederate and Nazi flags. The rally turned violent between protestors and counter-protestors, culminating in James Alex Fields Jr. driving a vehicle into a crowd of people, ultimately killing one person, Heather Heyer. More than 30 others were injured during the rally.
Nine victims of the rally, including Heyer’s mother, filed a lawsuit in federal district court against the organizers of the rally, including 17 white nationalist leaders. The trial went on for almost a month. The jury found the organizers liable on four claims but deadlocked on two claims regarding the Ku Klux Klan Act, a law passed after the Civil War that allows private citizens to sue others for civil rights violations.
During the trial, the plaintiffs testified they saw violence and blood everywhere and heard racial slurs being shouted. The defendants, determined to prove the plaintiffs right, used racial epithets and expressed their support for white supremacy when it was their turn on the witness stand. They also blamed each other and the anti-fascist political movement known as Antifa for the violence.
The jury found the defendants liable for civil conspiracy and awarded $11 million in damages to plaintiffs. The jury also found defendants liable for intimidation, harassment, and violence motivated by racial, religious, or ethnic animosity and awarded plaintiffs $1.5 million in damages. The jury determined that James Field Jr. liable for assault and battery and intentional infliction of emotional distress and awarded plaintiffs a combined $13.5 million. However, Field is currently serving a life sentence for murder and hate crimes and would be unlikely to ever pay the full amount.
The defendants have stated they intend to appeal the ruling and called the verdicts “activism by means of lawsuits.” The plaintiffs intend to file a new suit to continue prosecuting the remaining claims regarding the Ku Klux Klan Act.
Free Speech Was Not a Defense In This Case
The defendants argued that they had a First Amendment right to protest, identify as White Supremacists, and hold their racial views. While being a White Supremacist or chanting “Jews Will Not Replace Us” is within their right their free speech rights, free speech is not applicable here.
First, free speech only covers speech. It does not cover actions, such as the assault and battery claims that the jury found the defendants liable for. Second, even free speech has exceptions, the most critical one being no advocacy of violence. Of course, this exception is drawn very narrowly so that it cannot be abused by the government. For instance, saying “Mike Pence should die” may still be protected speech. However, statements regarding when, how, and where to kill someone will not be considered protected speech.
Do You Need the Help of a Personal Injury Attorney?
If you have sustained a personal injury through someone else’s unlawful act, you should contact a personal injury attorney. A skilled personal injury lawyer near you can review the facts of your case, go over your rights and options, and represent you at hearings and in court.