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Lawyers Sue White Supremacists Over Charlottesville Violence


You can't yell fire in a crowded movie theater if there is no fire. This idea that there's a limit to free speech is at the heart of a lawsuit targeting the organizers of last year's Unite the Right rally. That Charlottesville, Va., demonstration was staged by white nationalist organizations. An attack on counter-protesters ended up injuring dozens, and it killed one woman. Today, a judge holds the first hearing in this case. The white nationalist groups, including the KKK, say they were just exercising their right to free speech and are not responsible for the violence that broke out. Roberta Kaplan represents those who are suing the rally organizers. We asked her about that argument.

ROBERTA KAPLAN: Well, they are within their First Amendment rights to believe what they want to believe. And they are within their First Amendment rights to say what they want to say. If they had all come to Charlottesville, they hadn't planned violence and they had just paraded around town peacefully celebrating with a swastika, as offensive and reprehensible as I find that to be, they are protected in doing that. But our allegation in this complaint - and it's pretty detailed and comprehensive - is that's not what they did.

MARTIN: What did they do that was beyond their free-speech rights?

KAPLAN: So for months and months leading up to Charlottesville, they engaged in an enormous amount of communication, planning and coordination about things like what weapons to bring with them to Charlottesville, how to make it look like you're acting in self-defence when you're really committing violence. They actually, believe it or not, talked about using protesters as speed bumps, which is obviously tragic and horrific in light of what happened to Heather Heyer.

MARTIN: Heather Heyer was the young woman who lost her life that day.

KAPLAN: Correct. They talked about militaristic coordination and who would be leading and who would take directions. And then on August 11 and 12, that's exactly what happened. And then after it happened, they all celebrated what had happened as a success of their long-held plans. That's not free speech. That's a conspiracy.

MARTIN: Is there a precedent for what you're arguing?

KAPLAN: Yeah, there are precedents for these cases. So, first of all, the Justice Department was originally started, actually, after the Civil War to deal with white supremacy groups and the KKK in the South. The Justice Department itself has had a long history of bringing these kinds of actions. And on top of that, private groups have sought to shut down the KKK and other groups when this kind of violence has occurred.

MARTIN: So Richard Spencer, who is named in this suit, he's one of the country's leading white supremacists. He's tried to get this dismissed by arguing that it is an example of, quote, unquote, "lawfare," which is a phrase to mean suing people you disagree with in order to essentially bankrupt them into silence. Is that what you're doing?

KAPLAN: We are suing the defendants in this case on behalf of three people who were hit by the car that James Field drove into the crowd of protesters, two of whom had their legs completely smashed, destroyed and have legs that are full of metal pieces as a result of what was done in Charlottesville. This is not some kind of symbolic case. We want compensatory damages and justice for our clients, all of whom are injured by what happened.

MARTIN: So you don't have any motives that extend to undermining white supremacist groups writ large around the country?

KAPLAN: Well, we want to send a message that you can't do this. People are entitled to have their First Amendment beliefs in this country and to speak those beliefs, but what they're not allowed to do in this country is to plan, commit and then celebrate violence motivated by those beliefs.

MARTIN: Roberta Kaplan, along with co-counsel Karen Dunn, are representing 10 plaintiffs who are suing the organizers of the Unite the Right rally. Thanks so much for talking with us.

KAPLAN: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.