Harassment That Drove Kiah Morris Out Of The Vermont Legislature Was Ruled “Protected Speech”
The First Amendment, in some cases, can be a double-edged sword. When it comes to prosecuting harassment, it can sometimes stand in the way of allowing victims to reclaim their lives. In one instance of this, a man who pushed Vermont's only black woman representative to resign will not face charges for harassment, despite the fact that he admitted to "trolling" her and trying to make her feel uncomfortable.
Kiah Morris resigned from her seat in the Vermont House of Representatives in September after announcing she wouldn't seek re-election. At that point, she had already been the target of online harassment for two years, and Vermont's attorney general had already opened an investigation into the threats she had received, as The Burlington Free Press wrote.
“The sacrifices were becoming too great,” she told The Washington Post in September. Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan's eventual report that came from the investigation, which he released on Monday, revealed the targeted harassment Morris and her family had received. His final decision on the matter, however, was that the harassment still fell within the realm of protected speech.
"The online communications that were sent to Ms. Morris by Max Misch and others were clearly racist and extremely offensive," Donovan said at a press conference announcing the findings of the investigation, as The Burlington Free Press reported. "However, the First Amendment does not make speech sanctionable merely because its content is objectionable."
Donovan also said that the press conference was meant to “address the issue of racism and other forms of bias in our state," according to The Washington Post. However, the arrival of the man who had reportedly started and driven the online harassment campaign against Morris, Max Misch, certainly drew attention away from the stated purpose, as The Post wrote.
“I like trolling people — it’s fun,” Misch said of his decision to attend the conference. He was wearing a shirt displaying the image of Pepe the Frog, a cartoon character who has come to symbolize the alt-right, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
As Morris recounted to The Burlington Free Press, she and her family both experienced online harassment and had numerous suspicious visits to their house over a period of two years. Misch, who describes himself as a white supremacist, told a judge that he aimed to make Morris feel uncomfortable, as The Free Press reports. Although that judge did grant Morris a year-long no-stalking order against Misch, he allegedly resumed harassing Morris after the order expired in December 2017.
"Our system is not sufficient, and our understanding of how these terrorism tactics are used is not sufficient," Morris told The Free Press, explaining her view that the authorities had not done enough to protect her and her family. "That is a deliberate tactic — to dance on that line between saying 'I will come and punch you in the face' to 'I'm just sort of going to make you fear that something might happen should I see you.'"