After two investigations by law enforcement officials concluded that complaints made by former state Rep. Kiah Morris could not be sufficiently verified or linked to anyone guilty of a crime, her supporters still say she’s the victim of systemic racism and oppression.
A media frenzy broke out two weeks ago when Vermont Attorney General TJ Donovan stood before a raucous crowd of social justice activists in Bennington and announced he was unable to bring criminal charges regarding alleged threats made against the former representative.
Donovan said his office did everything possible to investigate Morris’ claims, but that the alleged threats lacked evidence or suspects. He also said complaints related to one local resident’s use of hateful speech aren’t legally actionable because speech is protected by the First Amendment.
At an appearance last week at the Rutland Free Library, the attorney general further asserted that any citizen has a right to show up at public events, wear provocative shirts or even voice objectionable opinions. The statements were particularly aimed at Max Misch, a harsh critic who in recent years has posted racially charged messages about the former state lawmaker. Misch also has continued to speak out against her in public as recently as January.
“I think we all support the First Amendment and that freedom of expression — until we hear something we don’t like,” Donovan told his audience in Rutland. “I feel very strongly that the Constitution applies to everyone, even people we dislike or disagree with or may be unpopular when they say terribly racist things.”
Despite Donovan’s detailed report explaining the lack of evidence supporting Morris’ claims about criminal threats, the social justice crowd is crying foul over the lack of charges brought by the attorney general’s office.
Thank you @KiahMorrisVT for speaking today (brrrr!) + for being a role model for our kids + calling #Vermont to action to fight systemic oppression + advocate for representation at all levels.. my family appreciates you. ❤️ #teamkiah #WomensMarchVT https://t.co/aKKVBdTF5v
— Katy Farber (@Non_Toxic_Kids) January 19, 2019
U.S. Sens. Patrick Leahy and Bernie Sanders and Rep. Peter Welch likewise issued a joint statement about the case, perpetuating the notion that racism is rampant in Vermont.
“Racism and white supremacy have no place in Vermont,” they wrote. “Kiah Morris was an excellent representative for the people of Bennington on so many issues, and our state is worse off without her in office.”
Donovan’s report asserts that many of Morris’ claims were unsubstantiated or unable to be verified.
One example involved a swastika painted on trees near the Morris home. The report indicated there was no evidence to suggest the anti-Semitic symbol was directed at the Morris family, nor was any suspect ever identified.
“The graffiti contained no threat or messages indicating that it was directed toward any particular individuals,” Donovan wrote in his 10-page report. “Moreover, the graffiti was located on trees at least 100 yards from the Morris/Lawton residence. This incident is not subject to prosecution at this time because there is no physical or eyewitness evidence that would provide a basis for identifying the suspect(s).”
Other examples were similarly investigated by the attorney general’s office and found to be unsubstantiated.
In light of Donovan’s report, some Vermonters say Morris should be held accountable for making baseless claims about racism in Vermont.
On Jan. 21, former Republican state House candidate Kevin Hoyt wrote a detailed letter to the attorney general’s office asserting Donovan didn’t do enough to hold Morris accountable for making her many unsupportable claims.
“The terminology the Morris family is using such as ‘extreme racial abuse,’ ‘home invasion,’ and ‘burglary’ and ‘real threats’ does not exist and never has,” Hoyt wrote. “I feel these false claims not only further damage Vermont and the true fight against real racism, but place me and my family at serious risk.”
Hoyt alleges in the letter that the Morris family made at least 16 false claims to the Bennington Police Department. Led by Police Chief Paul Doucette, the department conducted an investigation into Morris’ claims last summer, but concluded the alleged racist incidents and threats lacked “sufficient evidence to charge anyone with a crime.”
Hoyt notes that Morris has continued to collect over $18,000 in donations on a GoFundMe page for legal expenses related to her many assertions about racial harassment from fellow Vermonters. He also says he has been wrongly called a “racist” and a “Nazi,” to the point where he worries his own family is in danger.
“Although I was not investigated, heard, or listed in the AG report, I was politically damaged by the false racism claims by the Morris family,” Hoyt wrote in the letter. “I believe the defamation and character assassination was the intent and to stifle or help destroy political opponents.”
Last summer, Hoyt requested a no-stalking order against Morris’ husband, James Lawton, claiming that he was making defamatory statements against him. The order was denied, however.
First Amendment lawyer Marc Randazza, a frequent media commentator, said people have a tendency to support free speech for themselves but not for others.
“Freedom of speech means freedom of speech,” Randazza said. “Also, the First Amendment has no requirement that it be polite, that it be kind, or that it be to the liking to a lynch mob of [social justice activists].”
He said that if someone expresses racist views, especially towards an elected official, that speech is protected under the First Amendment.
Regarding those who have called for the attorney general to prosecute Max Misch over his objectionable and racist statements, Randazza said “anyone calling to prosecute this jerk is acting more contrary to the law than the jerk himself.”
He added that if society doesn’t protect speech we hate, no speech is safe from censorship.
“Then all you are really saying is you want to have a taste-test for speech, and then you don’t really have free speech at all,” he said. “The same First Amendment that allowed the civil rights movement to survive when it was in its infancy, that is the same First Amendment that protects the rights of even these people who express what we might consider to be culturally abhorrent terms. They still get to do that.”
Attempts to reach Morris family attorney Robert Appel for comment on this story were unsuccessful.