A conservative activist is suing Del. Cheryl Turpin, D-Virginia Beach, over ads she ran during her 2017 campaign that linked him to neo-Nazis and white supremacists.
Scott Presler said in a lawsuit filed this week in Virginia Beach Circuit Court that he’s received death threats and is worried about his ability to get jobs after Turpin distributed campaign ads that he says falsely linked him to neo-Nazis and called him the leader of a hate group.
He’s asking for $350,000 in punitive damages and $5 million in compensatory damages. He also requested a jury trial, which hasn’t been set.
Presler has volunteered for political campaigns and organizations since 2014, according to the suit.
He works for ACT for America, which describes itself as a “national security grassroots advocacy organization” that “stands for the protection of the United States of America and the Western values upon which our nation was built.”
ACT says it works to “address the threat presented by those who seek to destroy our Western way of life through advocating violence or radical religious discrimination through hate groups, such as those represented by movements like radical Islam.”
ACT for America was labeled a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which called it “the largest anti-Muslim group in America.”
The SPLC’s designations have been controversial, though. In June, the SPLC apologized and entered into a $3.4 million legal settlement with a Muslim man the group included in a list of anti-Muslim extremists.
However, the Anti-Defamation League says ACT for America propagates conspiracy theories and “stokes irrational fears” about Muslims.
In late 2016, Presler attended a campaign event for Republican candidate Rocky Holcomb as a supporter. Holcomb was running against Turpin in a special election to fill the 85th House of Delegates seat.
Holcomb and Presler took a selfie together that Presler posted to his personal Facebook page. His profile is public and he often uses it to post political messages.
About a year later, the photo showed up in a political ad taking aim at Holcomb, who was again running against Turpin.
The ad featured Presler’s selfie with Holcomb and claims that Presler was the “leader of a local hate group,” and “coordinated a joint rally with a known neo-Nazi,” referring to a March Against Sharia held in Virginia Beach last summer.
Turpin’s ad said speakers at that event were also part of the violent Unite the Rally last August in Charlottesville that left one person dead. Two state troopers policing the rally also died in a helicopter crash.
Turpin was fined by the state Board of Elections for one of the ads Presler refers to because it had an incomplete disclosure statement. The board didn’t consider the ad’s content.
Presler says in his lawsuit that he doesn’t support white supremacists. Reached by email Thursday, Presler said he would talk to his lawyer before giving a statement. He had not provided one as of Friday afternoon.
ACT for America’s foundation doesn’t align with neo-Nazism, Presler’s attorney, Rhiannon Jordan, wrote in the suit. Plus, Presler claims that being openly gay puts him at odds with neo-Nazis.
Turpin, and her former campaign manager, Dan McNamara, who was also named in the suit, “acted with hatred, personal spite, ill will, and with the desire to injure Presler as a volunteer and supporter of Holcomb’s first campaign,” the lawsuit claims.
Turpin declined to comment on the suit and said she hasn’t seen it yet.
Defamation suits between two elected officials typically don’t stand much of a chance in court, said Josh Wheeler, senior law fellow at George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia Law School and former director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression.
When it comes to defamation in politics, speech gets broader protections to encourage public debate.
According to the 1964 Supreme Court case, The New York Times v. Sullivan, politicians and other public figures have to prove the intent of a defamatory statement.
“We consider this case against the background of a profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials,” the ruling says.
But Presler isn’t a politician and Holcomb isn’t part of the lawsuit.
Private citizens, generally, only have to prove a statement was false and caused harm, Wheeler said.
Since Presler’s complaint is based on a campaign ad, it’s possible the court holds him to the higher standard that a politician would have to meet if he or she filed a similar suit, Wheeler said.
“One one hand, it’s a private figure suing a public official,” he said. “But on the other hand, the speech is of public concern.”
View the lawsuit here.