President Trump was handed a disappointment in court on March 31, 2017, when a federal judge ruled that a lawsuit against him, his campaign and two of his supporters can proceed with the evidence already submitted. The case grew out of then-Candidate Trump’s words at a campaign rally in Louisville, Kentucky, on March 1, 2016, when three protesters were forcibly ejected from the audience.
The suit against the president alleges that the three activists, Henry Brousseau, Kashiya Nwanguma and Molly Shah, attended the rally with the intent to, in the words of their suit, “peacefully protest” against Donald Trump. After making their presence known in the crowd while Trump was speaking, the candidate repeatedly called out from the stage: “Get ’em out!” The plaintiffs allege that they were then roughly handled, insulted and, in one case, physically struck by other members of the audience.
CNN video footage of the event gave substance to the plaintiffs’ account, as Mr. Trump can be seen and heard repeatedly calling for the protesters (who do not appear on camera in the broadcast footage) to be removed from the auditorium. The candidate repeatedly said, “Get them out” and “Get out,” in addition to “Don’t hurt them,” presumably to his crowd of supporters.
Shortly after the alleged incident, the three protesters filed a civil lawsuit for unspecified damages against Donald Trump, the Trump campaign and two rally attendees accused of assault and battery. Their case wound its way through the preliminary stages for over a year before Friday’s ruling.
According to the plaintiffs, two members of the crowd are liable for violence against them, and the president and his campaign organization are liable for incitement to riot, vicarious liability and negligence in failing to protect the plaintiffs while they were being ejected from the premises.
In the matter before the court, President Trump was asking for dismissal with prejudice of all of the plaintiffs’ charges. One of the president’s co-defendants, Kentucky resident Matthew Heimbach, also sought to suppress from the record any references to the political organization he runs, which espouses traditionalist and nationalist sentiments on its website. Heimbach’s organization, the Traditional Youth Network, opposes multiculturalism on political grounds and was named in the suit as a “white nationalist” organization. Heimbach, acting as his own counsel, argued that his group’s values were not germane to the case at hand and should not be considered in a civil suit that alleges violence against an activist.
The judge hearing the motion, U.S. District Court Judge David Hale, heard the arguments and issued a 22-page ruling on March 31. In his decision, the 2014 Obama appointee ruled that Mr. Heimbach’s association with the Traditional Youth Movement is relevant to the case as it reveals his “antipathy toward blacks” and that the plaintiffs had presented sufficient evidence to proceed with the lawsuit, despite the Trump defense team’s request for dismissal.
The judge further ruled on the Trump team’s attempt to argue “assumption of the risk,” the legal doctrine that people who go to public functions have a diminished expectation of safety and privacy, and that they willingly take on increased risks by being in such places. The defense effectively argued that the plaintiffs bore enough responsibility for the incident that the president should be absolved.
Judge Hale did not entertain this line of defense at all. In his written decision, the judge explained that “assumption of the risk” had not been active law in Kentucky for decades, and that no such defense would be allowed.
The case is still far from over. Judge Hale’s ruling moves the lawsuit to the federal magistrate’s court, where the parties are expected to come together for settlement talks. The case may eventually proceed to a full trial if those talks are unsuccessful.