A black lawmaker who resigned in Vermont “was a victim of racial harassment,” the state’s attorney general said, but the case won’t be prosecuted because of the First Amendment.
In an announcement Monday, Attorney General T.J. Donovan said former state Rep. Kiah Morris had been subjected to speech that was “clearly racist and extremely offensive,” but the perpetrator, a self-confessed white nationalist, cannot be sanctioned because of protections of free speech.
Morris and her husband began receiving anonymous messages, including racist tweets, in March 2016, according to the attorney general’s findings. The harassment continued for months and involved instances of online harassment, theft and vandalism. The Bennington Police Department and Vermont State Police launched investigations. In August 2018, the Attorney General’s Office launched an independent investigation that resulted in Monday’s decision not to seek prosecution.
Morris, at the time Vermont’s only black female legislator, resigned her position in September 2018 citing a variety of factors, including “the continued harassment.” In a Facebook post at the time, Morris wrote that she and her family “face continued harassment and seek legal remedies to the harm endured.”
“Kiah and her family were victims of crime,” Donovan said in a news conference on Monday, adding that “the harassment was often based on Kiah Morris’ race and gender” and carried out “in a context of vicious racial harassment.”
But Donovan said his office would not prosecute any of the threats against Morris because they did not constitute “a serious expression of an attempt to harm.” Donovan added that under state and federal free speech laws, expressing political opposition is permitted, even when it is hyperbolic and insulting.
“In short, speech is protected even when it’s offensive, hurtful and demeaning,” Donovan said.
He announced the launch of a statewide “Bias Incident Reporting System” that will encourage law enforcement to share reports of hate speech incidents for civil investigation. At the news conference, Donovan said citizens should “confront hate speech at the ballot box” by electing people like Morris, and communities should work together to prevent instances of hate.
Morris, speaking Monday, expressed gratitude for the support she had received. Morris said the abuse was “historically rooted in a legacy of white supremacy, misogyny and inequity.”
In an emotional speech, Morris’ husband, James Lawton, fought back tears as he read excerpts from the messages of harassment. The messages consistently urged Morris to leave the state, with one saying, “The only place you’re going to be safe is Africa” and another, “Thanks for resigning, now please move out of my state.” The messages also included statements such as, “Whites will be ready for the war.”
“I say to you that this work is not done and that we are better than this,” Morris said Monday.
Morris could not be reached for additional comment.
CNN’s Janet DiGiacomo and Alta Spells contributed to this report.