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Panelists at UVa discuss rally lawsuit ahead of its October trial

Attorneys leading the charge in a landmark rally lawsuit said during a University of Virginia event Thursday that they hope the case serves as a deterrent to future acts of white supremacist violence.

Jointly hosted by UVa’s Miller Center and Karsh Center for Law and Democracy, the virtual panel featured Ian Solomon, dean of the Batten School of Leadership and Public policy; Amy Spitalnick, executive director of Integrity First For America; and attorneys Karen Dunn and Roberta Kaplan.

Dunn and Kaplan are key counsel for the plaintiffs in the Sines v. Kessler lawsuit, which was filed on behalf of various Charlottesville-area residents soon after the 2017 Unite the Right rally. The lawsuit targets key organizers and participants of the Aug. 11 and 12 rallies and, according to Dunn, utilizes a seldom-used Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871 civil rights statute.

“It was originally designed to protect the rights of people in the Reconstruction era and, as others have said, what we have alleged here is a conspiracy to do racially motivated violence, which is not lawful or protected speech,” Dunn said.

The lawsuit was filed in October 2017 and was among the first cases Kaplan took on when she started her own law offices. After watching the press coverage of the Unite the Right rally, Kaplan said she became concerned that then-U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions would not use the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice to conduct a large-scale investigation.

After making some calls, Kaplan said she decided to fly to Charlottesville to meet with people on the ground, many of whom became plaintiffs in the case, and then asked Dunn to join the case.

Dunn said the plaintiffs span a wide range of backgrounds, including a local student and a minister, and were present for various parts of the deadly weekend, including the torch rally at UVa on Aug. 11 and at the scene of a car attack downtown on Aug. 12. The defendants, on the other hand, are mostly from outside of the area, Dunn said, and are mainly leaders and organizers of the rally.

“Richard Spencer, Matthew Heimbach, Jason Kessler, Eli Kline — these are people who really played lead roles in organizing the events,” Dunn said. “Then we also made allegations against the groups that they supported the events and put resources behind it and made sure that the events were meticulously organized and that the violence that was intended was carried out.”

Solomon said a case like Sines v. Kessler is important because it can be used to create an official, evidence-based record of the events surrounding the rallies, making it more difficult for others to willfully misinterpret or deny.

“Whether it’s assaults on coronavirus, whether it’s on critical race theory, whether it’s the Holocaust deniers, whether it’s climate change — pick your thing — people want to just bury it and tell a very different story,” he said. “I think as members of an intellectual community, as educators, we have to be standing up for truth; we want public policy decisions to be made on the basis of reality.”

Spitalnick said there are “clear connections” between the 2017 violence in Charlottesville and increases in violent hate crimes and the January insurrection attempt at the U.S. Capitol.

“It’s important that we see that direct line, hear those echoes of replacement theory and other far-right conspiracies in the halls of Congress six months ago, that help you connect the dots and understand how the cycle works and what future path it could inspire is crucial to breaking the cycle,” she said.

In terms of the case, Spitalnick said the defendants already have faced consequences for their actions, both outside of court and within the court, incurring financial and evidentiary sanctions.

Civil contempt sanctions are highly unusual punishment, Dunn said, but the plaintiffs are still seeking the validation that comes from the “tremendous power” of a jury verdict.

“It’s different than a judge telling you that what you did is wrong, and it’s different than the government charging you for something that’s wrong,” Dunn said. “I think when a jury of real people from the Western District of Virginia get together and they review this evidence, they know what happened and they’re instructed on law, they will return a verdict in favor of our plaintiff.”

The value of a legal victory also could spill into other areas, Solomon said.

“Many people are discouraged, they’re losing faith in elections and in these kinds of lawsuits, but to see progress made, I think it has always been mobilizing and motivating to social movements,” he said.

Sines v. Kessler is scheduled for a multi-week jury trial beginning Oct. 25.


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