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Charlottesville suit seeks to connect online speech with real-world violence

FILE - In this Aug. 12, 2017, file photo, an emergency employee helps an injured person after a neo-Nazi drove his car into a group of counter-protesters at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va.
FILE - In this Aug. 12, 2017, file photo, an emergency employee helps an injured person after a neo-Nazi drove his car into a group of counter-protesters at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va. AP Photo/Steve Helber, File

The white nationalist rally that took a deadly turn in Charlottesville, Virginia, during the summer of 2017 shocked Americans with its front-row view of hatred on the rise. But weeks before the violence, organizers were making preparations for the gathering in a corner of the internet.

Using a private server on a platform designed for online gaming, supporters of the rally discussed everything from restroom access to what to wear and what weapons they could legally bring (guns, knives, pepper spray) to the August rally.

Those online chats are now at the heart of a lawsuit that accuses more than two dozen individuals and entities, including white supremacists, of engaging in a violent conspiracy to violate the rights of the counterdemonstrators who gathered in Charlottesville to denounce racism and anti-Semitism.

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During the weekend’s events, a neo-Nazi plowed his car into a crowd of counterdemonstrators, killing a woman and injuring dozens of other people.

The 11 plaintiffs in the lawsuit are using the online conversations to bolster their claim of a conspiracy.

“In many ways, social media has become the Klan den of the 21st century,” said Amy Spitalnick, executive director of Integrity First for America, the nonprofit organization funding the civil case.

In fact, the lawsuit invokes a post-Civil War federal law written to protect black Americans from oppression by the Ku Klux Klan.

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The case, which the plaintiffs anticipate will go to trial sometime next year, is a bid to connect online speech by far-right groups to real-world violence.

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It comes amid a string of deadly extremist attacks around the world in which the alleged killers used the internet to share their views or signal their intentions. Those attacks include the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre last year that left 11 people dead and the slaughter of 51 people at two New Zealand mosques in March.

The Charlottesville plaintiffs, most of whom took part in the counterdemonstrations, are seeking unspecified compensatory and punitive damages as well as an injunction limiting the defendants’ behavior.

The lawsuit cites more than 40 channels organizers used on the online platform Discord to orchestrate their weekend rally. The online conversations were initially released by a left-leaning website called Unicorn Riot.

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One defendant in the case, according to the lawsuit, vowed online that he would “come barehanded and barefisted,” adding, “My guys will be ready with lots of nifty equipment.”

The online planning and promotion of the rally show that “what happened there is no accident,” Spitalnick said.

A Discord spokesman said the company is cooperating with all requests related to the case, adding, “We have a zero-tolerance approach to activities that violate our community guidelines and take immediate action when we become aware of it.”

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The defendants, who include white nationalist Richard Spencer, a leader of the rally, have denied involvement in or endorsement of any illegal behavior. Attorneys for the defendants have said they acted in self-defense and described the online conversations as “lawful event planning.”

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They have argued, too, that the rally was protected by the First Amendment right to free speech and the Second Amendment right to bear arms.

Four attorneys representing defendants in the case did not return requests for comment.

During the weekend of violence, hundreds of neo-Nazis and white nationalists descended on Charlottesville to protest the planned removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. They marched through town wielding torches and shouting racist and anti-Semitic slogans. Skirmishes broke out before the deadly car attack.

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The driver of the car, James Alex Fields Jr., was convicted of murder and hate crimes and sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison. He is named as a defendant in the lawsuit.

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Last year, U.S. District Judge Norman Moon mostly rejected defendants’ request to throw out the case.

But he signaled to the plaintiffs that they should not seek to “label everyone at the rally (and for that matter on the internet) who disagreed with them as co-conspirators.”

One of the defendants, white nationalist Christopher Cantwell, was dropped by his attorneys, who cited his failure to pay bills and an anti-Semitic threat he was accused of making against a lead plaintiffs’ lawyer, Roberta Kaplan, who helped argue the Supreme Court case that legalized gay marriage. Cantwell denied his rhetoric constituted a threat.

In a historic lawsuit in 1987, the Southern Poverty Law Center won $7 million over the killing of a black teenager, a verdict that sent an Alabama Klan organization into bankruptcy.

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Whatever financial or symbolic effect the Charlottesville case ultimately has on white nationalist leaders, its potential to deter them from planning violence on the internet may be limited.

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Extremists have migrated among multiple online platforms, even after getting ejected from mainstream sites such as Twitter and Facebook. And encrypted platforms give them a means of organizing anonymously, said Oren Segal, director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism.

Still, “even if it’s not going to fundamentally change the way white supremacists operate online and how that evolves,” Segal said of the lawsuit, “it’s something to be said to hold people accountable for a seminal moment of hate in this country.”