Judge Dismisses Free Speech Suit Brought by ‘Unite the Right’ Organizer

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (CN) — A federal judge on Friday tossed out a lawsuit brought against the city of Charlottesville by a “Unite the Right” organizer who claimed city officials violated his First Amendment rights.

Jason Kessler, a primary organizer of the rally in Charlottesville that led to the death of a protester, sued the city in 2019 for shutting down his event after threats and violence had ensued.

Alt-right activists and neo-Nazis march on Emancipation Park in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Aug. 12, 2017. Their event left 40 injured and one dead. (Image via Anthony Crider/Wikimedia)

The August 2017 event, which the organizer says revolved around the planned removal of a Confederate statue in formerly named Lee Park, garnered national attention following violent clashes between alt-right protesters and antifa counter protesters.

Kessler had a permit to hold the event, but law enforcement announced an “unlawful assembly” due to public safety concerns and cleared the park before he could speak.

Kessler and other plaintiffs in the civil case, including rally attendee David Matthew Parrott, accused city officials of using the “expected chaos and violence caused by the confrontations” to unconstitutionally limit their freedom of speech by ending the rally.

Parrott had been detained and arrested for remaining in the park after officials ordered the crowds to disperse.

U.S. District Judge Norman Moon of the Western District of Virginia dismissed the case Friday.

“Plaintiffs contend that defendants were under an obligation to more narrowly tailor the unlawful assembly declaration by picking non-violent participants from the pool of protestors and counter protestors to remain on site. The court disagrees,” wrote Moon in the 25-page opinion.

Moon said the officers could not possibly have had an obligation under the Constitution to try to reliably differentiate all non-violent people from the “various ideological camps present.”

Charlottesville, its current city manager, former local officials and a Virginia State Police officer are listed as defendants in the case.

“Plaintiffs allege that their ‘Alt-Right’ message, which was to be showcased at the UTR rally, is considered by many to be ‘offensive due to its liberal use of racially and religiously offensive language,’” the ruling notes.

A great number organizations around the country, including the Southern Poverty Law Center, regarded the event’s intent as racist when videos emerged of some marchers yelling neo-Confederate and Nazi-related slogans.

Contrary to the claims made by the plaintiffs in this case, however, it was not the message of the event that caused the city to attempt to cease the gathering.

“The allegations in the complaint reflect that the declaration of an unlawful assembly was done for content- and viewpoint-neutral and survives intermediate scrutiny,” the opinion states.

According to Moon, the unlawful assembly declaration also left an ample number of opportunities for attendees or protesters to re-congregate at a later time or place.

“Considering allegations regarding the violent and tumultuous circumstances of the UTR rally, the court concludes that Defendants’ decision to declare unlawful assembly —temporarily shutting down the forum— was appropriately tailored to the substantial governmental interests limiting the spread of the violence and protecting officer safety,” Moon wrote.

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