A man who recorded video of a car plowing into a crowd of protesters during last year's neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, is now suing right-wing conspiracy theorists who claimed he was an undercover CIA officer who helped stage the deadly attack.
Brennan Gilmore, a Foreign Service officer and bluegrass musician, says he hopes to take Alex Jones, who founded the website Infowars, and six others to trial in Virginia federal court for inspiring death threats and harassment.
More broadly, he and his attorneys from the Georgetown Law Civil Rights Clinic hope to show that the First Amendment does not protect Jones and others whose sensational falsehoods have inspired vicious responses.
"We're really trying to set a new paradigm for how people like Alex Jones and Infowars operate, to inject some consequences, legal consequences into that world and hold them accountable for the terror they cause," attorney Andrew Mendrala said in an interview. "We don't think the First Amendment protects blatantly defamatory speech that inspires violence and hatred of victims of terrorist attacks and mass shootings."
Gilmore was using his phone to film counterprotesters at an Aug. 12 white supremacist rally in downtown Charlottesville when a car rammed into the crowd, killing 20-year-old Heather Heyer and wounding dozens of others. James Fields, a self-professed neo-Nazi, is charged with first-degree murder in her death.
Gilmore had caught the deadly assault on video. He posted it on Twitter, calling it an act of terrorism and encouraging people to "stay home."
The video was widely viewed; Gilmore was repeatedly interviewed. Then the online attacks began. Gilmore could not have simply caught the moment on video by accident, Jones and the others concluded. Given his work for the State Department and his past job as chief of staff for former congressman Tom Perriello, they claimed, he must be working for the CIA to undermine President Donald Trump.
Lee Stranahan, a former writer for Breitbart, appeared in a video on the Infowars website calling Heyer a willing "martyr" whose death was arranged to help provoke a coup.
Among the other defendants are Jim Hoft, who on his blog Gateway Pundit called Gilmore a "deep-state shill," and former Florida congressman Allen West, who posted an article on his website saying the Charlottesville attack was a "set-up."
Gilmore said he was deluged with death threats, hate mail and online hacking attempts. His parents' address was posted online; a powdery substance was sent to their house.
As recently as last month, Gilmore said, someone suggested his body would be found in the Rivanna River, which runs by his home.
"It's died off significantly but it's still very present," he said. "I'm sort of constantly having to look over my shoulder."
Gilmore is on leave from the Foreign Service and he says that the smears have made his current work in rural workforce development more challenging. If he goes abroad again he is afraid he will be taken as an undercover CIA operative. Conservative friends from the local bluegrass music scene believe he might be one, he said.
"People really distanced themselves from me and even condemned me that I grew up playing music with," he said.
Mendrala said that while he believes the defamation case is clear-cut, there is little precedent for how it will proceed. Jones settled a lawsuit last year with the yogurt company Chobani and retracted claims about its employees. Gilmore says he has no intention of settling; he is asking for a jury trial.
"The motivation. . .is the broader implications of the new era of the saturation of these fake news outlets," he said. "There's no money that would be offered in a settlement that would make me drop the suit."