SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – A woman accused of helping to coordinate violence at a deadly “alt-right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia last year can no longer hide her identity from victims, a federal judge ruled Monday.
The anonymous woman, accused of encouraging violence at the August 2017 rally, asked a judge to quash a subpoena that would reveal her identity and that of 48 others. The subpoena also sought the content of messages shared by her and others on a private server called “Charlottesville 2.0” through the Discord messaging application.
Some of those messages were leaked by the media organization Unicorn Riot, revealing calls from group members to use pepper spray, PVC pipes and flagpoles as weapons during the event.
The group members’ messages and identities are being sought as discovery in a lawsuit filed in the Western District of Virginia by nine people who claim they suffered physical and emotional harm as a result of the violent white nationalist rally on Aug. 11 and 12, 2017 that left one woman dead.
According to the plaintiffs, an anonymous woman posted messages under the alias “kristall.night,” allegedly a reference to the Kristallnacht massacre of Jews in Nazi Germany in 1938. The woman shared messages encouraging people to bring flagpoles to the rally that could “double as spears” or be used “as a club.”
The woman, who filed her motion to quash under the pseudonym Jane Doe, argued that revealing her identity would chill her First Amendment right of association and right to engage in anonymous political speech.
Finding that the “right to association is not absolute,” U.S. Magistrate Judge Joseph Spero concluded that the plaintiffs’ interest in Doe’s identity outweighs her right to engage in anonymous political speech, especially since her identity is supposed to remain secret under the terms of a protective order.
“While even limited disclosure of this information may create some chilling effect, the protections available through a designation of ‘highly confidential’ mitigate that harm,” Spero wrote in his 28-page ruling.
Doe’s lawyer, Michael Randazza of Las Vegas, said he believes the judge should have given his client’s First Amendment rights “slightly more weight.”
Randazza said he does not believe the protective order in the Western District of Virginia case will prevent his client’s name from getting leaked to the public, and that the ruling sets a “dangerous” precedent for Americans’ First Amendment rights.
“The freedom to be a participant in a disfavored political discussion and to do so anonymously is a time honored American tradition going back to The Federalist Papers,” Randazza said. “It is always very alluring to want to rule against someone who’s espousing opinions you don’t like, but it’s a dangerous road to travel down.”
Despite his refusal to shield her identity, Spero granted Doe’s motion to quash part of the subpoena seeking the content of her messages. The judge ruled that the Stored Communications Act bars disclosing private electronic messages without the consent of a sender or receiver.
Defendants in the Virginia lawsuit include Unite the Right rally organizer Jason Kessler and James Alex Fields Jr., the 21-year-old man facing second-degree murder charges for allegedly ramming his car into a crowd of counter protestors on Aug. 12, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer.
Plaintiffs’ attorney Karen Dunn, of Boies Schiller Flexner in Washington D.C., said the ruling will help advance her clients’ fight to hold the right-wing rally organizers accountable for the violence they unfurled in Charlottesville nearly one year ago.
“Defendants used Discord to plot and plan the violent events in Charlottesville,” Dunn said in an emailed statement. “We are pleased with the court’s ruling upholding our subpoena to Discord because it gets us one step closer to securing valuable evidence against the defendants.”