Facebook Sued Over Kenosha Shootings Using 19th Century Law to Combat KKK

Four people, including the partner of one of the victims of the Kenosha shootings, have launched a lawsuit against Facebook, shooting suspect Kyle Rittenhouse and two militia groups, accusing the social network site of "shirking" its responsibility to stop right-wing groups encouraging violence against Black Lives Matter protesters.

The lawsuit, filed in the federal court of the Eastern District of Wisconsin, claims that Facebook failed to remove pages and accounts posting violent "call to arms" and conspiracy theories which resulted in the deadly shootings on August 25 in Kenosha.

The suit also alleges that Facebook and the right-wing groups were in violation of a 19th century law brought in during the reconstruction era which aimed to protect Black people against the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups, including allowing them the constitutional right to protest.

The lawsuit names the far-right "Boogaloo Bois" Facebook page as well as an event called "Armed Citizens to Protect our Lives and Property," promoted by the militia group Kenosha Guard, as being responsible for encouraging violence towards those protesting against the police shooting of Black man Jacob Blake last month.

Facebook is accused of failing to remove the pages despite more than 400 complaints and reports against the Kenosha Guard's call to arms.

Facebook's CEO Mark Zuckerberg previously described the failure to take down the page as an "operational mistake." The Kenosha Guard event page was eventually removed by one of its organizers, not by the social network itself.

"These calls to arms, as one might infer, are not met with the responsible consideration of concerned citizens, but by violent, racist rhetoric in which militia members promise to shoot protesters, their desire to literally kill people displayed publicly for all to see," the lawsuit states.

"These threats are, as one might infer again, not issued by thoughtful and respectful Americans dedicated to the preservation of the republic. Rather, they are people driven by the most outrageous of conspiracy theories, racist hatred of their fellow citizens that one hoped went out with the Ku Klux Klan, and disgust towards anyone who thought that equal protection of the laws was something that ought to be maintained."

Protesters face off with police outside the County Courthouse during demonstrations against the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin on August 25, 2020. Facebook has been accused in a lawsuit of “shirking” its responsibility to remove pages which promoted violence ahead of the deadly Kenosha protests. KAMIL KRZACZYNSKI/AFP/Getty

The equal protection law referenced in the lawsuit is the so-called "Ku Klux Klan Act," introduced in 1871. The law aimed to protect the civil and political rights of four million freed slaves—including those who were still being targeted with violence and harassment by the KKK in the South.

The law made it illegal to deny Black people their fundamental rights, including the right to peaceful protest. The suit argues that the right-wing militia groups, helped by Facebook, were denying Black Lives Matter demonstrators their right to peaceful protests with their call to arms.

"The charge against Facebook is negligent," attorney Jason Flores-Williams, who filed the suit on behalf of the plaintiffs, told Newsweek.

"Facebook enabled, and is continuing to enable, these right wing militias to organize and conspire to deprive U.S. citizens, especially people of color or Black Lives Matter protesters, of their rights.

"The fact we're having to dredge up these 19th century civil rights laws activated immediately after slavery to protect the rights of black people in the south being terrorized by the Ku Klux Klan and other armed militias in 2020 is a commentary on itself of where America is right now," Flores-Williams added.

"Facebook needs to be held accountable for its failure to execute its own policies," attorney Jennifer Sirrine, who also filed the suit, said in a statement. "They cannot continue to enable these extremist groups."

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit are Hannah Gittings, whose partner Anthony Huber was allegedly shot and killed by Rittenhouse after the 17-year-old traveled from his hometown in Illinois to attend the protests armed with a Smith & Wesson AR-15 style rifle.

Christopher McNeal, a Black Kenosha resident who was allegedly assaulted by militia members, Carmen Palmer, a Black woman who traveled from Milwaukee to take part in the BLM protests with her children whose car tires were slashed in Kenosha, and Nathan Peet, who witnessed Rittenhouse allegedly shoot his first victim Joseph Rosenbaum, are the other plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

One of the defendants named in the suit is Ryan Balch, an alleged Nazi sympathizer and Boogaloo Bois member who reportedly took command of the group of armed men seen protecting a gas station in Kenosha, which Rittenhouse was a part of. Kevin Mathewson, the self-entitled commander of the militia group the Kenosha Guard, is also named as a defendant in the suit.

Speaking to Newsweek, Rittenhouse's attorney Lin Wood described the suit against his client as "nonsense" but "may provide a golden opportunity for obtaining documents and sworn testimony from Facebook to bolster Kyle's future defamation case against Facebook for falsely accusing him of mass murder."

Wood was referencing a decision earlier this month from Facebook to ban videos showing support for the 17-year-old after designating the shooting in Kenosha a mass murder.

"Thus, I view the lawsuit as a blessing in disguise," Wood added.

In a statement to Newsweek, Facebook confirmed that they removed the shooter's profile and Instagram account and "took action against organizations and content related to Kenosha."

A spokesperson added: "We have found no evidence that suggests the shooter followed the Kenosha Guard Page or that he was invited to the Event Page they organized."

The lawsuit claims that "common sense" suggests that Rittenhouse would not have known about or traveled to Kenosha if the call to arms hadn't been "widely publicized" online, even if there were no direct links between his accounts and the Kenosha Guard page.

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