Three protesters may move ahead with their lawsuit against President Donald Trump's campaign and two Trump supporters, one of them a white nationalist, who attacked them at a Kentucky rally last year.
While US District Judge David Hale ruled out the notion that the attackers were Trump's agents, he said it's plausible the would-be president incited a riot. He denied the defendant's motions to dismiss or strike portions of the complaint.
"At this early stage of the case, the court finds most of the plaintiffs' claims to be sufficient," Hale ruled.
Kashiya Nwanguma, Molly Shah and Henry Brousseau attended the March 1, 2016, Louisville rally for the purpose of "peacefully protesting Trump," the ruling says. Nwanguma was carrying a sign with Trump's head on a pig's body, according to multiple news reports.
At some point during his remarks at the Kentucky International Convention Center, the ruling states, the candidate said, "Get 'em out of here."
Matthew Heimbach, who was representing the white nationalist Traditionalist Workers Party, and Alvin Bamberger attacked the protesters, according to the ruling.
Nwanguma, Shah and Brousseau accuse Heimbach and Bamberger of assault and battery. They further level charges of incitement to riot, negligence, gross negligence and recklessness against the Trump campaign.
The negligence claims arise from the plaintiffs' allegations that Trump knew his supporters would attack protesters. In particular, Trump's directive to eject a black woman was reckless, given the presence of a white nationalist group in the audience, the complaint says.
The three seek unspecified punitive and compensatory damages.
Video from CNN affiliate WLKY in Louisville shows several protesters yelling at Nwanguma, an African-American. A man in a red "Make America Great Again" hat, who resembles Heimbach, shoves her multiple times, putting his finger in the University of Louisville student's face and yelling. Another man in a military-style uniform then continues shoving her through the crowd.
CNN affiliate WDRB in Louisville reported in July that the Louisville Metro Police Department issued criminal summonses for Heimbach, Bamberger and Joseph Pryor of Indiana, charging them with misdemeanor harassment for making physical contact with Nwanguma.
Nwanguma alleged she was the subject of racist and sexist slurs during the incident, WDRB reported. Four other protesters filed complaints after the rally, the station reported, but prosecutors declined to press charges.
According to the federal ruling, Heimbach shoved Nwanguma before Bamberger struck her. Heimbach also shoved Shah, while an unknown attacker, believed to be with the Traditionalist Worker Party, punched 17-year-old Brousseau, a high school student, in the stomach, it says.
Rally attendees continued pushing Shah, even as she made her way to the back of the convention center, the ruling says.
As the melee unfolded, Trump told the rally, "Don't hurt 'em. If I say, 'Go get 'em,' I get in trouble with the press," according to the ruling.
Men acknowledge pushing
Bamberger, who wore a Korean War Veterans Association uniform at the rally, later conceded in a letter to the group that he "pushed a young woman down the aisle toward the exit," the court ruling states. Though it's not mentioned in the ruling, Bamberger also said in the letter that he sincerely regretted pushing the woman.
Heimbach, too, acknowledged his role in the incident, writing in a blog post that he helped "the crowd drive out one of the women," the ruling states. Reached by the Southern Poverty Law Center's Hatewatch blog last year, Heimbach did not express remorse.
"This is clearly a political prosecution, and it's a miscarriage of justice," Heimbach told the blog. "I'm not surprised we have a biased system that favors violent and radical leftists instead of holding up justice for everyone."
Bamberger told the federal court that Nwanguma was never threatened or injured by his actions. The court found the claims meritless, saying that "it is reasonable to infer that Bamberger caused Nwanguma to fear an 'unwanted touching.'"
While Bamberger sought a dismissal of many claims in the case, Heimbach sought only to strike certain portions of the complaint, including paragraphs discussing his white nationalist affiliations. He claims many parts of the complaints to be impertinent, immaterial or scandalous, but the court disagreed and declined to strike them.
Court rejects free speech defense
The Trump campaign responded that no riot actually occurred, that Trump's words amount to free speech and that Trump was not addressing audience members -- but rather, security personnel -- and did not intend for violence to erupt.
Judge Hale reiterated, though, that Bamberger began pushing the protesters on Trump's order and that as Trump's supporters began shoving protesters, the would-be president said, "Don't hurt 'em."
"Presumably if he had intended for protesters to be escorted out by security personnel, Trump would have instructed the intervening audience members to stop what they were doing, rather than offering guidance on how to go about it," the judge wrote, later citing the plaintiffs' claim that no security personnel "intervened during the assault."
Hale also wrote that there is no requirement that a riot occur for someone to be found guilty of inciting one.
As for the free speech argument, Hale rejected that as well, saying speech that incites violence is not protected and Trump's words "at least 'implicitly encouraged the use of violence or lawless action.'" Plus, the judge wrote, the plaintiffs successfully lay out at least one prior example of protesters being attacked at a Trump rally.
The Trump campaign's attorneys also raised the defense that Nwanguma, Shah and Brousseau were trespassing, but Hale said that tickets to the rally "were not denied to people simply because they had political views which differed from Trump and/or his supporters." The protesters were never told to leave before the violence ensued, Hale said.
Trump: 'It's not me'
Violence was a repeated theme during Trump's campaigns with both Democratic presidential candidates addressing it and with GOP Sen. Marco Rubio, an early presidential candidate, expressing concern that someone could be killed at one of his rival's rallies.
During one presidential debate, Trump said he did not support the violence happening at his rallies and explained its roots.
"When they see what's going on in this country, they have anger that's unbelievable. They have anger. They love this country. They don't like seeing bad trade deals. They don't like seeing higher taxes. They don't like seeing a loss of their jobs," he said. "I see it. There is some anger. There's also great love for the country. It's a beautiful thing in many respects, but I certainly don't condone (violence) at all."
Presented with some of his own remarks that seemed to condone violence at the rallies -- including one in which he said to hit a protester and promised to pay for the legal fees -- Trump turned the blame on the protesters.
"We have some protesters who are bad dudes. They have done bad things. They are swinging. They are really dangerous and they get in there and they start hitting people," he said, claiming it was often local police who removed the protesters from his rallies. "It's not me. It's usually the municipal government, the police, because I don't have guards all over these stadiums."