'Breakdown In Bennington': Protected — And Racist — Speech
Note: Some of this reporting is disturbing. This story contains racist language.
It’s been more than a year since the lone female African American representative in Vermont’s Statehouse stepped down.
Kiah Morris resigned after becoming the target of a white nationalist who lives in her district. She was only the second black woman to be elected to the legislature in Vermont.
Vermont Public Radio and VTDigger have teamed up to look at what happened, and to try to understand why Morris’ case was so jarring for many African Americans in Vermont. We’ll have stories all this week, under the title Breakdown In Bennington, that examine the case from many angles.
In VPR’s first story, we walk through what exactly happened. We recommend listening to the audio story above, but we’ve also provided a transcript below.
Disclaimer: Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers. They may contain errors, so please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.
Peter Hirschfeld: At the Congregation Beth El Synogogue in Bennington, Attorney General TJ Donovan steps up to a podium. It’s January 14, 2019. And his office has been investigating alleged racist attacks against state representative Kiah Morris. As Donovan looks across the room, he acknowledges many of the state’s leaders.
TJ Donovan: Curtiss Reed, the executive director of the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity, is here. We have many state legislators with us today.
Peter Hirschfeld: Many in the room had been calling on Donovan to deliver justice for Morris in the form of criminal charges against avowed white nationalist Max Misch. Misch had targeted Morris with racist language on social media.
Why Morris? Well, until a few months before this press conference, she’d been the only African American woman serving in the Vermont Legislature.
Months after this press conference, Max Misch shared his views on race with me.
[We have had reservations about giving Misch’s views a platform on VPR. But we decided that his speech is too relevant to the story to leave out].
Max Misch: I believe white people are the best. I believe that white people have created, made everything for everyone. The automobile. The airplane. Indoor plumbing … Yes, white people are the best.
Peter Hirschfeld: Misch says he did use Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to target Morris online. And at this press conference today, Morris says those comments deeply affected her family.
Kiah Morris: For two years, we lived in my husband’s childhood home feeling unsafe, never sleeping peacefully because we had to be vigilant.
Peter Hirschfeld: So this press conference is a big moment for TJ Donovan. He’s an ambitious young Democrat, who’s expressed interest in running for governor.
Donovan says he understands why Kiah Morris was so fearful. Says he understands why Max Misch’s racist speech made her feel so unsafe.
TJ Donovan: Kiah Morris was a victim of racial harassment. Relatively few Vermonters have had any of these experiences. And very few have had any of these experiences in a context of vicious racial harassment.
Peter Hirschfeld: But Donovan goes on to say this vicious racial harassment is not a crime.
TJ Donovan: Speech is protected even when it’s offensive, hurtful, and demeaning.
Peter Hirschfeld: Speech must be protected, Donovan says, even when it causes a black lawmaker to cut short a political career.
TJ Donovan: The court tells us that where speech involves public officials or matters of public concern, the First Amendment tolerates a great deal of speech that is hateful and offensive. In regards to the threats against Kiah Morris, I find the statements presented to us in this matter, while racist, insulting and degrading, are not subject to prosecution.
Peter Hirschfeld: VPR and VTDigger have obtained the full investigative file at the AG’s office. We wanted to learn more about how the state’s top law enforcement agency handled this high-profile case of alleged racial harassment.
We wanted to learn more about Donovan’s decision, because people of color across Vermont had been watching this case closely. And, because Donovan’s decision continues to resonate.
We spoke with Mia Schultz a few months after Donovan announced he would not file charges against Misch. Schultz is bi-racial, and she lives in Bennington. She says the message from the attorney general, and the rest of the criminal justice system, seems clear:
Mia Schultz: It says to me that somebody who is as intelligent as her and well-liked by the community still can’t be protected, basically for no other reason but the color of her skin, really. So when she’s not being protected the way that I know that if it were somebody else would have been protected, then you know you’re not safe. I can’t possibly be safe. So that’s the message the police department sent me, and TJ Donovan sent us: That we don’t matter, and we’re not protected.
Peter Hirschfeld: There’s no question that Max Misch targeted Kiah Morris with racist speech. That’s a matter of public record at this point.
Where the controversy arises is here: Did Misch’s behavior fall within the bounds of constitutionally-protected free speech? Or, did his tweets and his taunts cross a line into criminal harassment? Or violate Vermont’s threatening law?
Donovan continues to defend his decision not to bring charges against Misch. His ruling, however, shook a fault line that reverberated well beyond the Green Mountain State.
Phillip Scott: So black people aren’t safe in the state of Vermont, when your attorney general, the top law enforcement guy, states that you can be harassed threatened and terrorized by a white supremacist, and he is okay with it, because of freedom of speech. Black people are not safe in Vermont knowing that guy is the attorney general of that state.
Peter Hirschfeld: Our reporting on this case has raised as many questions as answers, one of which I posed to TJ Donovan last summer.
Peter Hirschfled: We have a law that recognizes speech, right? But a lot of people are feeling that law does not recognize harm inflicted by that speech. So is there a need for some kind of statutory intervention to address that side of the equation?
TJ Donovan: That is the question that we’re all struggling with.
Peter Hirschfeld: It’s a question that racial justice leaders, including Kiah Morris herself, are still trying to provide answers to, nearly a year and a half after her decision to resign.
Kiah Morris: What to do with the speech, is to acknowledge it is part of a system of terrorism, it is part of a system of attempted subjugation, it is attempted silence, it is the denial of humanity. And so from that, there can be harms.
Peter Hirschfeld: Harms that we’d learn much more about as we continued our reporting.
This is the first of five stories in VPR and VTDigger’s weeklong series looking back at Kiah Morris’ resignation from the Vermont House of Representatives. Find all the stories on our Breakdown In Bennington page.