Free Speech on Trial in Charlottesville, Va.

By John Friend

As AFP goes to press, a monumental lawsuit involving the primary organizers of the Unite the Right rally and a group of far-left counterprotesters represented by activist lawyer Roberta Kaplan and supported by Integrity First for America, a leftist nonprofit organization, is wrapping up its first week of jury selection and instruction as well as opening statements by both sides.

The start of the trial, officially known as Sines v. Kessler, comes roughly four years following the Unite the Right rally. Organized primarily by Jason Kessler, a Charlottesville-based activist and political commentator, the rally was supported by a wide variety of leading dissidents, activist groups, and white nationalist organizations comprising the broader Alt Right political movement that rose to prominence during the 2015 and 2016 presidential campaign season. The rally, organized to protest the removal of Confederate statues and memorials in Charlottesville and across the country, was legally sanctioned by local authorities, with Kessler obtaining a permit that was upheld by a federal judge prior to the rally.

That did not stop the radical left —Antifa thugs and other far-left revolutionaries—from counterprotesting and engaging in violence, disruption, and sabotage that day, all while local and state law enforcement officials stood by, failing to protect the civil and First Amendment rights of Kessler and others who peacefully gathered at the rally.

The lawsuit, brought by a group of counterprotesters—more accurately described as violent disruptors and agitators of the legally sanctioned rally—fancifully and without a single fact alleges that defendants engaged in a violent conspiracy to assault and even murder racial minorities during the rally. The lawsuit lists roughly 20 white nationalist organizations (some of which are now defunct and no longer operating) and individuals as defendants, including Kessler, Andrew Anglin of “The Daily Stormer” website, Richard Spencer, Matt Parrot, Matt Heimbach, Christopher Cantwell, the League of the South, the National Socialist Movement, the Traditionalist Workers Party, Identity Evropa (renamed the  American Identity Movement in 2019), and at least two chapters of the Ku Klux Klan.

Kaplan, the plaintiff’s lead attorney and a well-connected political activist, and Amy Spitalnick, the leader of Integrity First for America and the daughter of Holocaust survivors, have used the lawsuit to raise enormous amounts of money as well as generate sympathetic media coverage for their narrative. The activists leading the lawsuit have openly discussed their legal strategy and goal, namely to expose “White supremacists” and “anti-Semites” and “to bankrupt these groups,” according to The Jewish Daily Forward.

According to Kessler, virtually no evidence has been presented or brought forth to demonstrate a conspiracy between any of the defendants and James Fields, the young man alleged to have struck Heather Heyer with his vehicle, causing her high-profile and dramatic death. Fields has been convicted and is currently in prison for his actions, despite strong evidence indicating his vehicle was attacked by violent and aggressive counterprotesters marauding around the city following the disruption and eventual breakup of the rally.

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Additionally, Kaplan, Spitalnick and the group of plaintiffs have sought to bar the introduction of the Charlottesville Independent Review, a professional, nonpartisan independent investigation of the Unite the Right rally and the City of Charlottesville’s response authored by Timothy Heaphy, a prominent attorney and the former U.S. federal attorney for Virginia. The Review, commonly known as The Heaphy Report, was sanctioned by the City of Charlottesville and came to some startling conclusions not at all supportive of the narrative promulgated by plaintiffs, left-wing activists, and the fake news media.

The Heaphy Report details how Antifa and other far-left extremists blockaded the Unite the Right attendees, illegally and oftentimes violently disrupting their legally sanctioned event, while law enforcement basically stood by and watched. The report highlights critical failures on the part of both law enforcement as well as city officials and concluded that “the City of Charlottesville protected neither free expression nor public safety on Aug. 12,” the day of the rally. The chief of police appeared to play a leading role in allowing the violent disruption and sabotage of the rally by far-left terrorists, and the report documented how he wanted to “let [both sides] fight” in order to justify declaring an unlawful assembly and shutting down the event, which is precisely what transpired.

Christopher Cantwell, a former popular radio host, organizer and activist who has faced a number of legal challenges following the Unite the Right rally, is a pro se defendant in the lawsuit, and is seeking to introduce bodycam footage as evidence in the case to demonstrate he and other defendants had peaceful intentions for the rally. He organized and attended a pre-rally meeting with his supporters and other attendees of the rally which he recorded.

“It’s specifically alleged that we conspired to commit racially motivated violence at that Aug. 11 planning meeting,” Cantwell explained to U.S. District Court Judge Norman K. Moon, who is presiding over the case. Plaintiffs will likely move to bar or otherwise prohibit Cantwell’s bodycam footage from being entered into evidence.

“The trial is about whether so called ‘hate speech’ is free speech (it is) and whether protesters have a right to self-defense when threatened by anarchist extremists,” Kessler explained to this reporter in a recent exchange before offering some optimism following the conclusion of jury selection.

“Three of my ideal jurors made it onto the jury,” Kessler noted. “And all of the others are just fine. Remember, we only need one to hang it and the facts are on our side. We could very well convince them all after they look at the evidence.”

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