Federal Judge Says Trump Incited Violence at Campaign Rally, Lawsuit Against Him and Supporters Can Proceed

Then-candidate Donald Trump speaking to supporters at the March 1, 2016 rally, which is now at the center of a lawsuit against Trump and three of his supporters. Photo: Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images

A federal judge in Kentucky has ruled against lawyers representing President Trump who argued that a lawsuit which seeks to hold Trump liable for inciting violence against three protesters at a campaign rally last year should be thrown out on free-speech grounds. The case pertains to a March 2016 Trump campaign rally in Louisville during which Trump supporters assaulted protesters after then candidate Trump had repeatedly said “get ’em out of here” from the stage. As the Louisville Courier-Journal explains, Trump’s lawyers had argued that the president’s comments were protected political speech and that the offending Trump supporters were acting on their own, not for or at the direction of Trump or his campaign, and that it was not Trump’s intent for the audience members to use force against the protesters. Judge David J. Hale rejected those arguments in a ruling issued on Friday, saying that facts supported the allegation that injuries suffered by the protesters were a “direct and proximate result” of Trump’s actions.

In his ruling, Hale noted that the violence only began after Trump’s comments from the stage, and that “it is plausible that Trump’s direction to ‘get ’em out of here’ advocated the use of force,” calling the comments “an order, an instruction, a command.” Speech inciting violence is not protected by the First Amendment, Hale reminded, and he dismissed the idea that the “obvious alternative explanation” for the meaning of Trump’s comments was that he intended for security personnel, not audience members, to eject the protesters. Hale also rejected the argument that the defendants were not liable since the plaintiffs had assumed a risk of injury by choosing to protest at the rally.

As the Washington Post’s Aaron Blake points out, this is not the first time a federal judge has reminded the president that political rhetoric matters. Trump’s original campaign call to ban the entry of Muslims into the U.S., as well as additional related comments by Trump advisers, have featured prominently in rulings against both versions of the Trump administration’s travel-ban executive orders. Adds Blake:

Trump and his team will undoubtedly dismiss this latest example as yet another activist judge who is out to get him. But yet again, they are forced into the position of saying that Trump’s words shouldn’t be taken at face value — that he didn’t mean what he actually, literally said.

The plaintiffs in the Louisville lawsuit, protesters Henry Brousseau, Kashiya Nwanguma, and Molly Shah, are seeking unspecified financial damages from Trump and three supporters who assaulted them at the rally, Matthew Heimbach, a white-supremacist group leader; Alvin Bamberger, a Korean War Veterans Association member; and an additional still-unidentified individual. The bulk of that lawsuit may now proceed, Judge David J. Hale ruled on Friday, explaining that “the Court finds that Plaintiffs have adequately alleged that their harm was foreseeable and that the Trump Defendants had a duty to prevent it.”

And of course, the rally last year in Louisville was hardly the only time Trump supporters used violence against protesters at a campaign event, or even the most direct example of Trump seeming to support or incite that reaction.

Here’s a local news broadcast covering the original police investigation into the Louisville incident, including footage of the assaults and some comments from Nwanguma:

Judge Says Trump Incited Rally Violence, Lawsuit Can Proceed