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A former American University student won a judgement against the founder of the neo-Nazi Website the Daily Stormer and one of its followers for an online harassment campaign they incited against her. Neither defendant appeared in court, and as a result the judge ordered a default judgement of $725,000 in favor of Taylor Dumpson, the first black elected student body president at the university.
We explore the issues as the nation grapples with racism and debates about free speech and hate speech.
Produced by Ingalisa Schrobsdorff
- Fanta Aw Vice President of Campus Life, American University
- Arusha Gordon Counsel and co-director, Stop Hate Project at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law
KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5. Welcome. Later in the broadcast an art exhibit takes aim at gun violence. But first, last week a former American University student won a $725,000 judgement against the publisher of the Neo-Nazi Website the Daily Stormer and one of its followers. This came after an online harassment campaign they incited against her when she became a AU's first black student body president. Joining me now to discuss this is Arusha Gordon. Arusha Gordon is Counsel and co-director of the Stop Hate Project at the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. Thank you for joining us.
ARUSHA GORDONThank you so much for having me.
NNAMDIAlso with us in studio is Fanta Aw. Fanta Aw is the Vice President of Campus Life at American University. Fanta Aw, good to see you.
FANTA AWThank you.
NNAMDIAnd, of course, American University holds the license for WAMU Radio. Arusha, you're with the organization that helped Taylor Dumpson pursue this case. What was the original complaint? And what did these two defendants to?
GORDONYeah. So in 2017 our client was elected as American University's first female African American student body president as you mentioned. And the day after she was inaugurated a hate crime target her on campus. Basically a masked man went around campus at around 2:00 or 3:00 a.m. Hung bananas with ethnic and racial slurs on them from lamppost using black tape made into nooses.
GORDONAnd then really to make the matter worse, in the days that followed Neo-Nazi Andrew Anglin took to his website the Daily Stormer, which is one of the most popular white supremacist websites out there and called on his readers to send her threatening and harassing messages. And so in the next few months she received dozens of messages threatening and bullying her. And as a result she no longer felt safe on campus. So we worked with her to file a lawsuit last year. And while one of the defendants came forth and we entered into a settlement, two of them never responded. And that's why we got our default judgement on Friday.
NNAMDIWhat do you see as important about this case? What were the legal issues this case focused on?
GORDONYeah. Well, we were very excited because as far as we know this is the first time a district court has found that online harassment can constitute a violation of one's right to equally access public accommodations. And just to break that down a bit, basically a place of public accommodation is a building, sidewalk, school, restaurant, park that offers services to the public. And so here the court found one that American University is in fact a place public commendation and two that the defendants' campaign against our client interfered with her right to use the services at American University. And so we believe this creates a roadmap for other litigators to go forth in the future and sue white supremacists across the country.
NNAMDISo this was not just a decision having to do with free speech. This was a decision having to do with limiting Taylor Dumpson's freedom of movement. The fact that she was being threatened in this way, the fact that people had already appeared on campus and had been seen putting bananas around made this a threat to her freedom.
GORDONYeah. It was -- it meant that she wasn't able to equally access that space anymore because she didn't feel safe on campus anymore.
NNAMDIFanta, you're in charge of student life on campus and you were dealing with the original incidents when Taylor Dumpson first became the first black female student body president. Nooses and bananas found on campus with racist messages, what did this judgment now say to you?
AWWell, I think what this judgement says to me, you know, Kojo, as someone who is in the sphere of education is that we as a society really need to understand the ramification and the impact of certain acts. As, you know, my colleague expressed here, the issue of trolling that becomes threatening to the point that it really precludes someone from being able to access what we think is fundamental such as education and so forth is extremely serious. And so I think this judgment for me signaled that there are consequences to behavior such as this one.
NNAMDIAs we mentioned, there have been real life racial incidents on campus. Can you talk about how the university navigates those kinds of issues?
AWWell, I think it's no secret that as we think about the national climate there's a rise in hateful speech. There's a rise in just a whole range of things. And campuses are not bubbles onto themselves. They in many ways reflect what we're seeing as part of the larger society. And so American University is part of the larger society. And for universities across the country it is also no secret that it's becoming more and more challenging. As we think about the impact of climate on students, you know, environment to learn, the environment to be able to thrive on an everyday basis. And so the way I think as a university we are navigating this is through a range of strategies.
AWOne is to keep asking ourselves what is the kind of learning environment that we want to create for all of our students. And what does that learning environment look like? How do we create an environment where students can feel intellectually challenged while at the same time knowing that they can be physically safe and also emotionally safe?
AWAnd so everything from looking at your public safety and how your public safety is looking at issues of security and so forth are a part of that. It's also looking at what work do we need to do as a society overall around issues of inclusion and equity. And so in our case we've been navigating those waters with our journey of inclusive excellence. And what does that mean for a campus community that is about education? That's the second part of it. And then I think the third part is, again, because our focus is primarily on education is working with our students and our community as a whole around a range of these issues.
NNAMDI800-433-8850, do you think people should be able to sue over trolling and hate speech online? Do you feel colleges and universities have a special obligation to keep students safe from harassment and how do they control what happens online? 800-433-8850. And speaking of online, Fanta Aw, what can be done about students dealing with harassments on the internet as this student did?
AWIt's difficult. I think it goes without saying that it's a difficult challenge for sure. And I think the fundamental question particularly with the online space is knowing that we have a generation of what we call a generation of digitals, right? They live their lives pretty much on, you know, online. It is the community that they find a sense of belonging. It's also the community that they learn in many ways. And that they engage as a whole.
AWAnd so with this generation that's online all the time and often see it, never disconnect. You really do have I think an even greater challenge. Then if you add to that the component that we have seen arise in hateful speech and I think the big question for us is with the rise in hateful speech, where does it cross over to potentially becoming, you know, criminal behaviors? And how do we then in many ways not only educate and inform our students, but also what are the tools and mechanisms that exist to help in mitigating that. And I think that's the big question really.
NNAMDIBig question. And I'm assuming there are conversations on campus now addressing student and for that matter faculty and staff concerns about these issues.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones. Here now is Susan in Bethesda, Maryland. Susan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SUSANHi, Kojo. Thanks for taking my call. I was calling, because I think that -- my comment to you all is bravo for raising the, you know, standing by the student. And for just declaring that this is not acceptable in public spaces, on college campuses to be hampered and to have freedoms hampered. And bravo for setting course so that others can follow legislatively to pushback on this menace that is really out of closet.
SUSANYou know, the white supremacy stuff, whatever you're going to name the president, he's opened up a climate digitally for people to just be awful online. And it's not fair for, you know, a beautiful young woman, who's been elected to represent her school to be in 2019 to face this awful environment when, you know, it's just a matter of skin color. That's awful. And it's just not okay and everyone everyday has to stop and say, it's not okay. And we can do it in a respectful and legal way. So we can just, you know, raise focus on American values.
NNAMDIWell, I'm going to ask Arusha Gordon to once again underline what was significant about this case, because this was not simply a case involving hate speech online. This was a case involving public accommodation. The student did not feel safe on campus. Can you talk about the extent to which this factored into this case?
GORDONYeah. So because our client as a result of the troll storm really felt unsafe on campus. You saw the impact pretty directly emotionally, physically, mentally. Unfortunately our client no longer felt safe studying at the library late on campus, which I know when I was an undergrad I did a lot of. No longer safe just walking across campus late at night, she ended up having to withdraw from a class. And so there was a real immediate impact, and part of the court's decision was recognizing that link between online harassment and the real world impact. And so that's part of what we're really excited about in this decision is that there's a recognition that even though something happens online it can have a very real life effect.
GORDONAnd in addition I think the decision is important, because it kind of sets this roadmap for going after white supremacists elsewhere in the country. And hopefully sends a really strong message to other online trolls who might want to engage in this kind of bigoted harassment to think twice, because they could be liable for hundreds of thousands of dollars. And, Susan, I just want to say thank you. And also just really say that it was our client, who really had the courage here to come forth. And it was really a privilege to work with such a remarkable young woman.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Susan. The lasting effects of these things need to be underscored. One of the reasons that Taylor Dumpson is not in this studio with us today -- she participated with us back then on two previous broadcasts, one in the studio and another "Kojo in Your Community Town Hall" in Silver Spring, but the threats in many cases still linger. So she is still, obviously, -- has to be very careful about how she presents herself in public at this time, because the Daily Stormer while no longer existing in the legal internet world, it has migrated to the dark web. So they are presumably still communicating with people there. But there's another aspect to this issue. And John in Rockville would like to raise it. John, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JOHNHey, Kojo. Thank you so much for taking my call. It's really -- I think what they did was appalling and horrible. But my understanding is two of the defendants didn't even respond or show up. So what is the recourse for her being awarded what she's due from them?
NNAMDIWell, you raised one issue. There are two issues at this point. Neither defendant showed up in court. So this was a quoting here, "default judgement." Does that matter when it comes to the message in this case?
GORDONYeah. So first of all I would say that we're going to use every resource we have in order to collect the damages that the court awarded our client. And second I would that even -- that this still sends a really strong message, again, to other white supremacists, who might think twice now before engaging in this kind of harassment. So we think one we hope that we still will be able to collect. And two we believe there is a really strong message that's sent by this decision. And the default judgment, the opinion issued by the court really went very thoroughly through the facts and was very thorough in terms of addressing the legal violations here. And so we're very pleased with the language the court used and the precedent that we believe was set.
NNAMDIWell, the second question that John raises is that as the New York Times noted regarding a $14 million judgment against the publisher of the Daily Stormer in another case, his location is unknown. And it's unclear how much money if any will ever be collected. Will this young woman see this money given the fact that those involved at this point can't be found?
GORDONSo I think -- and we would need to double check this. But I believe our case is the only one right now against Andrew Anglin. We were also able to name some of the online trolls who took up this call. And so that differentiates this a little bit. So we can also collect from other defendants.
NNAMDIThis conversation feels very relevant right now. Do you see echoes of a bigger national conversation around hate speech here, Fanta Aw?
AWYes, Kojo, absolutely do. I mean, I think as we look at the national climate it is very much the case that there's a need for real national dialogue around these things. And, again, as I stated before the issue of free speech, the issue of hate speech, but more importantly as we get into hate speech, how and when does hate speech cross over potentially to what can be hate crimes. And I think it's safe to say that within our society and within our communities those lines are becoming more and more blurred. And that is a reality particularly for this young generation. As we saw it in El Paso as we see it, you know, in our society, it is real for folks. And as my colleague highlighted, which I think is really important is that with the judgement that was rendered it is not only the precedence that it's setting. It's recognizing the long term impact of these acts.
NNAMDIAs a university with rules and codes of conduct for students that are presumably stricter than the general laws, how do you now walk the line between free speech, which is very important on campuses and protecting students?
AWGreat question. And I would say a couple of things. One is we have to remember and we have to remind ourselves is what is the core mission of higher education? It is about education and education first. And so knowing that that is the core mission, it is also the case that speech really does matter as part of education. And I think for many of us who understand the values of free speech who understand why it matters in an educational setting and part of that is educating our students about the value of that and why it matters as part of their education.
AWWith that said, we also need to make sure that we create within our campuses and in all environments that are environments of learning an environment that is conducive to learning. So it becomes very important the kind of environment that we create for learning to happen for all. There is a balance there. There is a balance and there's not, you know, a perfect answer to that, and there's sort of things that I would say they're productive tensions there, but we think that universities have the ability to do and we do so on every given day.
AWAnd so for those who often say, well, you know, it's about cuddling students or it's about creating this safety net. That's not what we're talking about here. That's really not what we're talking about here. We have now more than ever, because of the online platform, we have folks who are frankly cowards. And in being cowards, they take the liberty to say anything and everything that is not only offensive, but that really are a threat to the existence of other people. That has consequences for others then to take actions that perhaps were not intended, but that have severe consequences.
AWAnd we have to understand what that means for us as a society. What that means for us as communities and what that means for the kind of learning environment that we want to create. And that's part of what we're talking about.
NNAMDIArusha, from a legal standpoint there's a long history in this country of speech being protected even vile speech. So where is the line when it comes to what should be limited and what should be allowed to stand?
GORDONYeah. So there are some limits to free speech that the courts have recognized. I think the one most people cite is the one you learn about high school civic education, you can't shout fire in a crowded theater. You can't incite violence. But in addition as a civil rights organization we also really look at the limits to free speech that courts have recognized in terms of one you can't interfere with someone's equal access to education. You can't create a racially hostile work environment. And here, of course, most relevant you can't interfere with equal access to public accommodations.
GORDONSo there are a number of limits to free speech. So when people say, I can do whatever I want online. I can say whatever I want. I can shout things from a moving car. There's actually some limits there in terms of what the courts have recognized.
NNAMDIHere now is John in Baltimore. John, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JOHNHi, Kojo. First of all thanks to your guests and the discussion of this topic. I think it's a very important one. My comment is I think that there should be zero tolerance for racism. And I think that, you know, that would be defined by each university and each community and each police department and so on individually. My question to your guest then if such a policy existed at American University, for example, zero tolerance for racism, how might that be implemented? How might that be legally implemented?
GORDONYeah. I think it's a really good point. I think it is kind of what my colleague Fanta was saying. There's a balance there between having students engage in free speech and debate and learn and also making sure everyone is able to equally participate in the learning experience. So in terms of implementing it I think it takes really strong schools administrators and really constructive and candid conversations in order to think about how to implement a zero tolerance policy like the one you're suggesting.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. We've seen a lot of news about platforms like Facebook, Google being pushed to do more to control what happens on their sites. One thing we found interesting, this judgement named individuals, the Neo-Nazi webstite's founder as well as a follower. What ground does this open up in terms of holding individuals accountable and not just platforms?
GORDONYeah, so we sued Andrew Anglin in his capacity as doing business at the Daily Stormer. So it's not quite a tech platform, but it is a web publication. And as I mentioned it's one of the most popular white supremacists sites. So we were able to send a message I think both to other websites that might be publishing hateful content as well as individuals that they could be held liable.
NNAMDIWe noted earlier this is not the only big judgment against the publisher of the Daily Stormer. Among other cases, the publisher had a $14 million judgment made in July against him. And we got an email from Seth, who points that the New York Time's story about the $14 million case and asked why we haven't mentioned antisemitism. We've been talking about racism. We should mention it.
GORDONYeah. So there are two other cases right now against Andrew Anglin. One was in White Fish, Montana with Tanya Gersh. And that case was brought by the Southern Poverty Law Center. And the other was brought by Muslim Advocates. And they both also obtained judgements earlier this summer. And so, yeah, we've seen a lot of anti-Semitic online harassment occur as well as islamophobic harassment, harassment really based on all kinds of different protected categories. And so I think, again, kind of the roadmap that our case sets forth, we're hoping people can use to counter all kinds of online harassment whether it's directly at someone on an anti-Semitic basis, an islamophobic cases, an LGBTQ basis. And so we're hopeful that people can continue to bring these cases and hold people accountable.
NNAMDIAnd finally here's Ernie in Washington D.C. Ernie, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ERNIEHi, there. I'm enjoying this discussion very much, but I think that there's some confusion in the term free speech by your guest. Free speech under the U.S. Constitution refers to the government restricting speech in any way. Individuals including corporations, non-profits, etcetera are perfectly free to put whatever restrictions they wish on speech. And people can either follow those rules or not follow them and be part of that community. I think it would be more constructive to today's discussion if in the academic setting we were talking about open discussion or academic freedom or something like that. But it really is not free speech we're talking about. And I think the main person, who uses this term incorrectly all the time on a national audience basis is our president unfortunately. He doesn't seem to realize this.
ERNIEBut that's really the situation. Free speech is a very specific legal term saying that the government may not restrict speech. And even when we're talking about the government, the Supreme Court has in fact carved out some exceptions pertaining to political figures, and when this speech may be endangering someone.
NNAMDII do have to interrupt because we're running out of time. You made a lot of good points there. But we're talking today about how this case was resolved as a result of threats made on an individual that caused that individual not to want to use public spaces that felt that her safety was threatened in those spaces. And that's one of the basis on which this judgement was made. I'm afraid that's all the time we have. Arusha Gordon is Counsel and co-director of the Stop Hate Project at the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. Thank you for joining us.
GORDONThank you so much.
NNAMDIFanta Aw is Vice President of Campus Life at American University. Fanta, always a pleasure.
NNAMDIGoing to take a short break, when we come back an art exhibit takes aim at gun violence. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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