As one federal lawsuit targeting organizers and participants of the Unite the Right rally received a new trial date, a defamation suit springing from the same event is still inching its way to trial.
U.S. District Judge Norman K. Moon recently issued an order scheduling the Sines v. Kessler case for a jury trial from Oct. 25 to Nov. 19. The trial had, at one point, been set for last October, but was delayed due to a combination of COVID-19 safety concerns and growing complications that threatened to extend the already lengthy case.
Sines v. Kessler has slowly worked its way through U.S. District Court since it was filed in October 2017, about two months after the deadly rally. The lawsuit targets key organizers and participants of the white supremacist rally and was filed on behalf of a number of Charlottesville-area residents by Integrity First for America.
Throughout the case so far, unfulfilled discovery requirements have plagued plaintiffs’ counsel as they attempted to get documents, devices and social media credentials from various defendants.
“We’re facing a growing crisis of far-right extremism — and those responsible have faced so little accountability,” Amy Spitalnick, executive director of Integrity First for America, said in a news release. “Our case uniquely takes on these white supremacists and neo-Nazis, holding them responsible for the racist violence they orchestrated in Charlottesville, while providing a model for accountability and validation that this legal strategy works.”
Another case prompted by the rally, Gilmore v. Alex Jones, also has faced a slow route to trial.
Brennan Gilmore, an activist and former U.S. Foreign Service officer, sued Jones, who is the main host and operator of InfoWars, as well as InfoWars and several others, in March 2018 for defamation.
After Gilmore witnessed and filmed the Aug. 12, 2017, car attack that killed counter-protester Heather Heyer, the defendants started spreading conspiracies about Gilmore, which led to death threats against him and his family, according to the suit.
In addition to Jones and InfoWars, the complaint names Free Speech Systems LLC, Lee Stranahan, Lee Ann McAdoo, Scott Creighton, James Hoft, Derrick Wilburn and former Rep. Allen B. West, R-Fla., as defendants. West was later dismissed from the suit.
The case has seen relatively little movement since the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals denied a petition from various defendants challenging its venue in November 2019.
In July, counsel for Gilmore filed a motion to compel discovery, breaking their requests down into seven categories, and last month, U.S. Magistrate Judge Joel C. Hoppe granted their motion to compel for all but two requests.
Though not granted outright, Hoppe wrote that requests for discovery of documents from August 2017 up to the present date may be relevant to proving defamation, as defendants have continued to publish statements, including a January 2020 article, about Gilmore and this case.
Additionally, Hoppe wrote that defendants’ chosen cutoff date of March 12, 2018 — one day before Gilmore filed the lawsuit — was arbitrary and the defendants did not identify any “principled reason why documents published on March 12, 2018, could be relevant to a showing of actual malice, while documents published on March 13, 2018, could not.”
“Contrary to defendants’ position, however, courts have not strictly limited evidence relevant to the defendant’s state of mind to that which existed prior to or at the time of publication,” Hoppe wrote. “While evidence that the publisher had not yet obtained at the time of publication could not be relevant to his state of mind, materials that post-date the publication (including, for example, the publisher’s own statements) may be probative of actual malice.”
The only request denied outright was one seeking evidence of profit motive — specifically, “whether defendants monitor ‘spikes’ in website traffic and then try ‘to emulate those spikes’ during later broadcasts, and whether Jones’s business ownership interests might ‘influence [his] financial motivations to run a particular story.’”
Hoppe wrote that this request was “not reasonably targeted at discerning a profit motive for publications specifically concerning the statements at issue in this case,” and that profit motive is insufficient, on its own, to show actual malice.
An eight-day jury trial for the Gilmore case was set to begin in June, but a Monday scheduling order setting pretrial deadlines indicated that an as-yet-set trial date is now expected after January 2022.