Safety, Bullying and Harassment
Oversight Board Case of Pro-Navalny Protests in Russia
Closed Mixed Outcome
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The United States District Court for the District of Columbia found that the plaintiff had met the burden for satisfying the claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress, awarded damages along with passing a restraining order against the defendants who operate the neo-Nazi website the Daily Stormer. In the instant case, after Ms. Taylor Dumpson was elected as the first female, African-American student government president at American University (AU), a masked man hung nooses with bananas inscribed with phrases such as “AKA Free” and “Harambe bait”. Soon after, Mr. Andrew Anglin posted a racist article about Ms. Dumpson on his website and directed his followers to “troll storm” Ms. Dumpson, in which Mr. Brian Andrew Ade participated. The court ruled that the defendants targeted the plaintiff because of her race and gender, due to which the plaintiff felt unsafe and her access AU’s campus and its resources, was impacted. This infringed on her right to enjoy public accommodation guaranteed under the District of Columbia Human Rights Act of 1977. The court further noted that the plaintiff suffered severe emotional distress due to defendants conduct which went beyond “mere insults” or “inconsiderate and unkind” behaviour and therefore, they were liable to pay compensation to the plaintiff. An amount of $101,429.28 as compensatory damages, $500,000 as punitive damages, and $124,022.10 as attorneys’ fees to the plaintiff was awarded in relation to online harassment perpetrated by the defendants.
Taylor Dumpson (the plaintiff) filed this case against Brian Andrew Ade, Andrew Anglin, and Moonbase Holdings, LLC (the defendants) for allegedly interfering with her right to full and equal enjoyment of places of public accommodation and for intentional infliction of emotional distress [p. 1]. Anglin is the founder and publisher of the Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi website.
On May 1, 2017, after Ms. Dumpson was elected as the first female, African-American student government president at American University (AU), a masked man hung nooses with bananas inscribed with phrases such as “AKA Free” (a reference to Ms. Dumpson’s sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha) and “Harambe bait” (a reference to a gorilla because comparing African Americans to apes is a common racist slur) [p. 2].
After the media reported this hate crime, Mr. Anglin posted an article about Ms. Dumpson on his website, the Daily Stormer, writing: “No one feels safe around bananas. Some racists have taken to calling this African Queen ‘Dumpy Dumpson,’ smdh [shaking my damn head].” Mr. Anglin then published Ms. Dumpson’s name, photo, and direct links to her Facebook account and the AU Student Government Twitter account with which Ms. Dumpson was associated as AU Student Government President. Mr. Anglin further directed his followers to “troll storm” Ms. Dumpson [p. 2].
Mr. Ade participated in the troll storm by posting on Twitter comments including: (1) “I beez prezdent n sheeeeit,” (2) “Turdler takes a Dump son,” (3) “OOOOOOK EEEEEK CHIMPOUT!,” (4) “You beez 100% sheboon!,” (5) “Sheeeeit I dindu nuffins she was axing fo it n sheeeit!,” (6) “Racoons Rule, coons drool,” (7) “Waah, waah, Dats Rayceez!,” and (8) “Chimput!” [page 3].
Consequently, Ms. Dumpson feared for her life and suffered both physically and mentally. Ms. Dumpson’s academics and preparation for law school also suffered as a result of the online harassment. She felt unsafe studying late on AU’s campus at night, missed exams, and dropped her minor in sociology. She felt scared of online harassment and stalking which interfered with her online presence and self-expression. She was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), an eating disorder, depression, and anxiety [p. 3].
On April 30, 2018, Ms. Dumpson filed a complaint against Messrs. Ade and Anglin, Moonbase Holdings, and James McCarty [p. 4]. Ms. Dumpson moved for default judgment against Messrs. Anglin and Ade and Moonbase Holdings for violations of the District of Columbia Human Rights Act of 1977 (DCHRA), D.C. Code § 2-1401.01 et seq., and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Ms. Dumpson requested the court to find the defendants jointly and severally liable for her injuries and asked for compensatory damages, punitive damages, attorneys’ fees, and injunctive relief [p. 4].
Justice Rosemary M. Collyer of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia presided over this case. The main issue for consideration was whether the defendants had infringed the plaintiff’s right to full and equal enjoyment of places of public accommodation and caused her intentional infliction of emotional distress.
First, the plaintiff alleged that the defendants infringed her right to enjoy public accommodation, specifically the AU campus by igniting the “troll storm” and harassing her because of her race and gender [p. 9]. Consequently, she felt unsafe on the campus and her ability to socialize on the AU campus was impacted. The court observed that “every individual has the right to an equal opportunity to participate in all aspects of life, including….in places of public accommodation” and that it would be unlawful to “directly or indirectly deny any person the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, and accommodations of any place of public accommodations on the basis of a variety of factors including race and gender” [p. 8]. While applying the above-mentioned provision to the instant case, the court noted that the defendants targeted the plaintiff because of her race and gender by sending her threatening messages and encouraging others to do the same, due to which the plaintiff felt unsafe and therefore, this troll storm initiated by the defendants impacted the plaintiff’s enjoyment of AU and its resources [p. 10].
Second, the plaintiff alleged that “the defendant’s article which mocked the noose incident and encouraged people to troll storm her was intended to inflict emotional distress” [p. 11]. She further contended that the encouraged harassment and online attacks ridiculed her because of her race and gender, which was “so outrageous in character and so extreme in degree as to go beyond all possible bounds of decency and be intolerable in a civilized society” [p. 11]. The court held that the defendants’ actions were “racially motivated and intentionally resulted in a campaign of racial and gender harassment”. The court noted that the defendants encouraged others to harass the plaintiff online which led to more than thirty messages by Daily Stormer followers over at least two months and therefore, this conduct went beyond “mere insults” or “inconsiderate and unkind” behaviour [p. 12]. The court further noted that the plaintiff suffered severe emotional distress due to defendants conduct as she suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), an eating disorder, depression, and anxiety.
The court concluded that the plaintiff had met her burden for satisfying the three elements of a claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress: the defendants participated in extreme and outrageous conduct, the plaintiff suffered severe emotional distress, and the defendants’ conduct intentionally or recklessly caused the plaintiff’s emotional distress [p. 12-13]. Since the defendants did not respond to the complaint, a default judgement was passed [p. 14].
Third, the plaintiff requested for compensatory damages, punitive damages, injunctive fees and attorneys fees. The court ruled that the defendant were jointly and severally liable for compensatory damages to the plaintiff since the troll storm initiated by the defendants and their intentional collective actions caused “pain and suffering” to the plaintiff due to which she had to seek psychiatric treatment. The court also observed that the plaintiff experienced “flashbacks, nightmares, depression, anxiety, and disordered eating, and engaged in avoidance behavior” as a result of defendants’ action and therefore was entitled to $101,429.28 as compensatory damages [p. 15]. Regarding the punitive damages, the court remarked that the punitive damages get awarded when the defendant acts with an “evil motive or actual malice” and in the instant case, the defendants’ outrageous conduct and intentional infliction of emotional distress justified punitive damages. Therefore, the court awarded $500,000 to the plaintiff [p. 16].
Lastly, the court passed a restraining order against the defendants to prevent them from (1) communicating directly with the plaintiff; or (2) publishing any public statements involving the plaintiff that (a) were defamatory, threatening, intimidating, harassing, or bullying; (b) interfered with the plaintiff’s equal enjoyment of public accommodations; (c) incited unlawful acts; or (d) were otherwise unlawful [p. 17-18]. The court also awarded The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights $105,114 in attorneys’ fees and $388.05 in costs; Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs $11,635 in attorneys’ fees; and Kirkland and Ellis, LLP $6,885.05 in fees and costs to cover the expert report, service, and filing [page 19].
To conclude, the court granted the plaintiff’s motion for default judgment and awarded compensatory damages, punitive damages, and attorneys fees to the plaintiff along with passing a restraining order against the defendants.
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
In the instant case, the District Court rightly balanced between the two competing rights: plaintiff’s right to enjoy public places and the defendant’s right to freedom of expression by excluding racially motivated speech outside the purview of protection guaranteed under the Constitution. By noting that the defendant’s “remarks regarding race and gender went far beyond the bounds of decency and were intolerable to the average or reasonable person in a civilized society, much less a university”, the court rightly limited defendant’s freedom of expression. In this case, the District Court used the definition of the “troll storm” for the first time. It defined “troll storms” as “involving the coordinated trolling of a person by multiple individuals via messages sent over social media platforms, postal mail, and phone.” It further defined “trolling” as “mocking, insulting, harassing, threatening, humiliating, defaming, and/or intimidating a targeted person through communications (typically, but not exclusively, online).” Similar views have been by judges in two other relevant decision: Gersh v Anglin and Obeidallaah v Anglin.
In Gersh v Anglin (CV 17-50-M-DLC-JCL), Tanya Gersh (the plaintiff) filed complaint against Andrew Anglin (the defendant) accusing him of initiating an online anti-Semitic harassment and intimidation campaign against her and her family. The defendant had published numerous articles and encouraged his followers to “troll storm” against the plaintiff due to which she received more than 700 messages between December 2016 and April 2017. The plaintiff alleged invasion of privacy, intentional infliction of emotional distress, violations of Montana’s Anti-Intimidation Act, and punitive damages. On July 15, 2019, the United States District Court for the District of Montana awarded $4,042,438 in compensatory damages and $10,000,000 in punitive damages to the plaintiff.
In Obeidallaah v Anglin (2:17-cv-720), Dean Obeidallaah (the plaintiff) filed a case against Andrew Anglin and Moonbase Holdings LLC (the defendants) accusing him of invasion of privacy, intentional infliction of emotional distress, misappropriation of name and civil conspiracy. The defendant published an article on the Daily Stormer entitled “Dean Obeidallah, Mastermind Behind Manchester Bombing, Calls on Trump to Declare Whites the Real Terrorists.” The article encouraged the followers to “confront” the plaintiff due to which several commentators threatened the plaintiff with death and/or violence. On May 01, 2019, the United States District Court of Southern District of Ohio awarded $470,000 in economic damages; $350,000 in non-economic damages; $3,280,000 in punitive damages; and $186,659 in attorneys’ fees and expenses.
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