American U. Student Sues Neo-Nazi Website Over Online Harassment

May 2, 2018 at 10:43AM
via The Chronicle of Higher Education

Susan Walsh/AP Images

Taylor Dumpson, the first black woman to lead American U.'s student government, has filed a lawsuit against the publisher of the Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi website.

Taylor Dumpson, American University’s first female, black student-government president, filed a lawsuit on Monday against the Daily Stormer, its publisher, Andrew Anglin, and a few of the neo-Nazi website’s readers, asserting that the site had encouraged online trolls to harass her days after she took the office.

Ms. Dumpson, who has since resigned from the position, was the target of racist comments and threats nearly a year ago. On her first day in office, bananas hung by a noose, accompanied by her sorority letters and racist messages, appeared on the university’s campus. The Daily Stormer published an article encouraging its readers to harass her and providing links to her social-media accounts, the lawsuit says.

The resulting emotional distress impeded her education, according to the complaint. The suit also names two other defendants who allegedly attacked her online.

Anglin did not respond to a request for comment.

“Be sure to send her some words of support on Facebook, and hit up the AU Student Government on Twitter,” read Anglin’s article in the Daily Stormer. “Let her know that you fully support her struggle against bananas.”

Dumpson couldn’t eat or sleep properly, lost an unhealthy amount of weight, and suffered a panic attack when she read the Daily Stormer article for the first time, according to the complaint.

“We believe the hate activity seen here was intended to chill the courage of a bold student leader.”

Aware of other attacks against African-Americans, Dumpson was afraid to leave her home for fear she’d face a similar threat, the complaint says. She felt she couldn’t study at the library at night, never left home without pepper spray, and received a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of the harassment, according to the complaint. She has been taking medication and seeking psychiatric treatment.

“It seems really important to us to be involved with helping Taylor vindicate her rights and to ensure the people that are responsible for the actions against her are held accountable,” said Emily P. Hughes, a lawyer representing Dumpson.

The complaint was underway before the university terminated its investigation into the incidents on its campus, Hughes said. Camille Lepre, a spokeswoman for the university, said in a statement that American is aware of the lawsuit and shares “a commitment to build a culture that holds human dignity and free expression as core values.”

“We reject hate, bigotry, intimidation in all its forms, and firmly believe that they have no place in our society,” the statement says.

As a result of the campus incidents and subsequent online comments, Dumpson missed an exam and took incompletes in some of her courses, the complaint says. Dumpson is on track to graduate, her lawyer said, but had to complete extra work to do so.

Lepre said the university offers emotional support to students in threatening situations; in this case it provided further counseling for the university community after the incidents.

“In this instance, since many in the AU community were also deeply affected by the hate crime and social-media attack, we encouraged all students to learn how to protect themselves online, and conducted a Facebook Live session with cybersafety tips,” Lepre said in a statement sent to The Chronicle. “This followed a series of academic and counseling services offered by the dean of students to support those affected by the hate crime.”

The lawsuit is the first of its kind at the university level to challenge harassment by online trolls, said Angus Johnston, a historian of student activism who teaches at the City University of New York’s Hostos Community College. If the lawsuit succeeds, student activists and others who protest alt-right campaigns on campuses, and who become the objects of online attacks, could begin seeking legal vindication.

“I haven’t seen anything like this before,” Johnston said. “This is striking in a couple of ways: It seems to be a new tactic within the realm of student protest, and it reflects the fact that people have been going after white supremacists and the Daily Stormer in particular very aggressively in the last year or two.”

The strategy connects to the efforts of antifa, an autonomous antifascist movement dating to the 1920s, in that it aims to disrupt an organization and make it difficult to continue its activities, Johnston said.

Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, who is also representing Dumpson, said students are particularly vulnerable to online harassment.

“We believe the hate activity seen here was intended to chill the courage of a bold student leader. We are seeing a spike in hate-crime activity across the country, and we are prepared to use every tool in our arsenal to protect the victims,” she said. “We hope our lawsuit will send a strong message to white supremacists and the alt-right that there are victims who are prepared to fight back and stand up and take action.”

One challenge Dumpson’s legal team faces is locating the defendants, Hughes said.

While tracking down online commenters may seem like a roadblock to other student activists’ taking legal action, it can be done, Johnston said.

“There is this perception that there is no way to sue for online harassment, and that is false,” he said. “ It’s something we’re going to be seeing more and more, because the effect this kind of harassment has on these people can be really devastating. The more that cases like this come out, the more that people see others taking this kind of action, the more likely they are to pursue.”