East County News Service
Photo: Creative Commons by S.A.
In landmark decision, court rules that hateful online trolling can constitute interference with the equal enjoyment of public accommodations
August 9, 2019 (Washington D.C.) -- Today the United States District Court for the District of Columbia ruled that white supremacists who used social media to threaten and harass the first African American female student body president of American University were liable for over $700,000 in damages and attorneys’ fees.
“This ruling is historic in that it marks the first time that a court has deemed racist online trolling activity that can interfere with one’s equal access to a public accommodation. The Court’s ruling recognizes the real-world damage done when bigots take to the internet to target and threaten African Americans and other people of color,” said Kristen Clarke, President and Executive Director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “This ruling should send a strong message to other white supremacists that they can and will be held accountable for hateful activity that constitutes unlawful discrimination, no matter whether it occurs online or in the real world.”
In 2017, Taylor Dumpson was elected as American University’s first female African American student body president. The day after she was inaugurated, a hate crime targeted her on the basis of her race and gender. A masked person hung nooses around campus with bananas tied to them. Some bananas had “AKA” written on them – referencing Plaintiff’s historically black sorority. Others read “Harambe bait,” referencing a gorilla killed at the Cincinnati Zoo as a racist and threatening comparison to African Americans. Defendant Andrew Anglin, an avowed neo-Nazi and publisher of the neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer, then directed his white supremacist followers to threaten and harass her on social media to amplify the harm of the hate crime.
The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and pro bono counsel Kirkland & Ellis LLP, along with the Washington Lawyers’ Committee, filed the lawsuit on behalf of the Plaintiff.
In addition to granting damages and a restraining order, the Court’s opinion is one of the first decisions to hold that online trolling can constitute interference with the equal enjoyment of public accommodations and equal opportunity to public education. “Mr. Anglin and Moonbase Holdings interfered with Ms. Dumpson’s access and enjoyment of [American University] by causing Ms. Dumpson to feel constantly unsafe as a result of Mr. Anglin and Moonbase Holdings’ threatening messages and the messages they urged others to send,” the judge wrote. “The Court finds … that Ms. Dumpson was targeted because of her race and gender.”
“This ruling is a precedent-setting moment in the fight against online hate, bigotry, and harassment. It recognizes that online hate and harassment on the basis of gender and race can and did interfere with our client’s rights to the use and enjoyment of a place of public accommodation and that such interference is actionable and has real consequences for those who engage in such crimes and misconduct,” said Emily P. Hughes, P.C., one of the partners who oversaw the Kirkland & Ellis team working on this matter. “We are grateful for the opportunity to have been part of the effort to secure this victory, which we anticipate will be used by future victims as an important tool against hate.”
“Taylor Dumpson was subjected to vile, racist threats solely because she was an African American woman exercising leadership at the University. The Court ruling today vindicates her rights, and the rights of all people of color, to be free from intimidation and the use of the internet to terrorize. Ms. Dumpson’s leadership and courage throughout is an inspiration,” said Jonathan M. Smith, Executive Director, Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs.
This case is part of the Lawyers’ Committee’s ongoing efforts to combat the increasing prevalence of hate crimes across the country. In recent years, we have seen how online activity can help mobilize and direct unlawful, hateful activity on and off social media platforms, with a devastating impact on the day-to-day lives. If you or someone you know has been targeted by hate, reach out to the Stop Hate Project for legal resources and other forms of support.
The Stop Hate Project works to strengthen the capacity of community leaders, local government, law enforcement, and organizations around the country to combat hate by connecting these groups with legal and social services resources and creating new ones in response to identified needs. The project’s resource and reporting hotline for hate incidents, 1-844-9-NO-HATE (1-844-966-4283), and 2ebsite, www.8449nohate.org, connect people and organizations combating hate with the resources and support they need.
The case is Dumpson v. Ade, No. 1:18-cv-01011-RMC, in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia.
The Court’s order can be read here.
The Court’s opinion can be read here.
The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, was formed in 1963 at the request of President John F. Kennedy to involve the private bar in providing legal services to address racial discrimination. The principal mission of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law is to secure, through the rule of law, equal justice for all, particularly in the areas of criminal justice, fair housing and community development, economic justice, educational opportunities, and voting rights.