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Potential Breakthrough Against Racist Trolling

Advocates hope a new legal settlement between a former neo-Nazi and a black college student may help other students who find themselves facing digital hate.

January 3, 2019
 

A man who targeted and harassed the first black female student body president of American University online has agreed in a landmark settlement to denounce white supremacy and apologize, possibly marking a rare victory for college students who have endured similar vitriol.

Taylor Dumpson, who was elected student government president in 2017, experienced a turbulent first day in office last May, when bananas were found around American’s campus that read “AKA,” or Alpha Kappa Alpha, referring to the sorority for African American women, which Dumpson had joined. Others read “Harambe bait,” a racist reference -- Harambe was a gorilla killed at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden in 2016. The bananas were hanging from ropes in the shape of nooses, which officials condemned as “hateful and racist.” The culprit was never caught.

After news media reported the incident, Andrew Anglin, who heads a neo-Nazi and white supremacist website called The Daily Stormer, posted Dumpson’s picture and personal information and directed his followers to attack her online. When Anglin first posted her photo, he referenced the nickname "Dumpy Dumpson" and wrote that his readers should "fully support her struggles against bananas," telling them where to access her Facebook and the student government's social media pages.

One of those people was Evan James McCarty, an Oregon native. On Twitter, McCarty posted Dumpson's location on multiple occasions and once told his followers, "Everybody bring bananas." He also tweeted "READY THE TROOPS" and tagged the student government president's Twitter account in a tweet that read "OOGA BOOGA."

In a federal lawsuit that Dumpson filed this year, she alleges that the constant bullying she faced from Anglin, McCarty and other defendants had led to emotional distress and post-traumatic stress disorder. Dumpson suffered from anxiety that affected her academics, according to her complaint. She has graduated and enrolled in law school.

In December, Dumpson reached a settlement with McCarty, who posted online under the pseudonym Byron de la Vandal, a reference to Byron De La Beckwith, a Ku Klux Klan member who assassinated civil rights leader Medgar Evers in the 1960s.

As a part of the settlement, McCarty is not allowed to participate in online trolling or doxing, which is the practice of making personal information public online. He must also complete 200 hours of community service on racial justice and agree to participate in the lawsuit against Anglin and other white supremacists. Anglin did not respond to a request for comment.

McCarty must also apologize to Dumpson in writing and on a recorded video, which Dumpson can use for “civil rights advocacy, outreach and educational purposes.”

In the apology, McCarty must renounce white supremacy, sexism and other forms of hate and bigotry and describe how he is “confronting” his own prejudice, namely through counseling, according to a statement from his parents, Deb and James McCarty.

“Our family has sincere empathy for Ms. Dumpson and is profoundly sorry for the harm caused her,” McCarty's parents said in the statement, speaking for the entire family. “Evan, our son, feels deep regret about his actions and is committed to making changes and moving forward in a positive way.”

They added he had “completely ceased” all involvement with hate groups and was working with counselors.

“He is a different person than he was when he hid behind an alias,” his parents said.

The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which helped Dumpson sue, said in a statement that it believes the settlement can serve as a model to others who are attempting to leave white supremacy.

“The settlement will support the efforts of community leaders and advocates combating racism and discrimination across the country,” Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the committee, said in the statement. “This landmark settlement sends a strong message to white supremacists and neo-Nazis that they are not above the law and will be held accountable for their dangerous and unlawful activity.”

Peter F. Lake, a law professor and director of the Center for Excellence in Higher Education Law and Policy at Stetson University, said that the lawyers in Dumpson's case appear to be trying to create protections against doxing. Previous court cases have not dealt with the speed and anonymity with which trolls can pursue their victims online, which could be intentional infliction of emotional distress, Lake said, adding that the First Amendment could protect the trolls' actions.

"I'm not sure what the Supreme Court would do with this," Lake said. "There's something about 'troll armies,' in which these people are partially or completely hidden entities. There's a certain anonymity … but it's creepy about how many are out there. There's a terrorism feel to it. A fear factor."

College students have faced online attacks by white supremacists before. Students at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have been targeted by a man who goes by the pseudonym Jack Corbin. He has used Twitter and a social media website favored by white supremacists called Gab to publish personal information of students, including their photos and where they live. Corbin, who was also connected to the alleged shooter of congregants at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, has delighted in coming up with vulgar nicknames and other bigoted attacks. The institution has not stepped in to stop the harassment.

A recent decision by a federal appeals court found that students at the University of Mary Washington were permitted to pursue a lawsuit against the institution for allegedly failing to protect them against online harassment. This ruling could clarify that colleges need to shield students from such attacks.

A group of feminist students had sued Mary Washington, asserting that the online threats the members faced constituted gender discrimination. While a lower court initially threw out the case, the appeals court agreed with the students that it was potentially legitimate. It now returns to a federal district judge.

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