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Charlottesville Sues White Nationalist Rally Organizers To Stop Alleged Paramilitary Activity

The city's lawyers claim that groups that participated in the "Unite the Right" rally in August functioned as unregulated private armies, and that they couldn't claim the protections of the First and Second Amendments.

Originally posted on
Updated on
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White nationalists, neo-Nazis and members of the 'alt-right' with body armor and combat weapons evacuate comrades who were pepper sprayed after the 'Unite the Right' rally was declared a unlawful gathering by Virginia State Police on August 12, 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Officials in Charlottesville, Virginia, filed a lawsuit on Thursday seeking to stop the organizers of August's "Unite the Right" rally and private militia groups from carrying out alleged "unlawful paramilitary activity" in the future.

The city's lawyers wrote that court intervention was needed because groups that participated in August's demonstration functioned as unregulated "private armies" and had pledged to come back to Charlottesville. The lawsuit pointed to a torchlight rally that took place in the city on Oct. 7 that featured white supremacist Richard Spencer as evidence that the pledge was serious.

"Without such relief, Charlottesville will be forced to relive the frightful spectacle of August 12: an invasion of roving paramilitary bands and unaccountable vigilante peacekeepers," Charlottesville's lawyers wrote.

The lawsuit, filed in the Circuit Court for the City of Charlottesville, names individuals who organized the Aug. 12 "Unite the Right" rally, white supremacist and white nationalist groups, and private militia groups as defendants. The rally resulted in dozens of injuries, and a car attack on counter-protesters left one woman, 32-year-old Heather Heyer, dead.

In addition to the city of Charlottesville, the lawsuit was filed on behalf of local neighborhood associations and business owners.

Charlottesville's lawyers, anticipating defenses rooted in the US Constitution's free speech and gun possession protections, wrote that the lawsuit is only seeking to stop unregulated paramilitary activity prohibited under Virginia law.

"This suit does not seek to restrict the individual Second Amendment right to arm oneself for self-defense. Nor would it imperil Defendants’ First Amendment rights to peaceably assemble and express their political views, however abhorrent they might be to others," the city's lawyers wrote. "Instead, it aims to restore the longstanding public-private equilibrium disrupted by Defendants’ unlawful paramilitary conduct."

Lawyers from the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at Georgetown University Law Center are handling the lawsuit along with Charlottesville City Attorney S. Craig Brown. The Georgetown institute, which launched in August, is led by two former longtime US government lawyers — Joshua Geltzer, who served as the senior director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council under former President Barack Obama, and Mary McCord, a veteran Justice Department official.

A group of Charlottesville residents separately filed a lawsuit in federal court on Thursday against the August rally's organizers and participants. The plaintiffs say they were harmed in different ways — some physically, some emotionally or psychologically — by the violence that broke out over the course of the weekend and by the racist and anti-Semitic displays and chants. The legal team behind the case, filed in the US District Court for the Western District of Virginia, includes Roberta Kaplan, who successfully argued in the US Supreme Court several years ago against the federal Defense of Marriage Act.

"The whole point of this lawsuit is to make it clear that this kind of conduct — inciting and then engaging in violence based on racism, sexism and anti-Semitism — has no place in our country," Kaplan said in a statement. "We are a nation of laws, dedicated to the principle that all people are created equal."

Two women who were injured in the car attack at the August rally are also suing "Unite the Right" organizers, as well as the man who allegedly drove the car into the crowd, James Fields Jr.

UPDATE

This story was updated with information about a second lawsuit filed on Thursday in federal court.

Zoe Tillman is a legal reporter with BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.

Contact Zoe Tillman at zoe.tillman@buzzfeed.com.

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