Crime and Justice

Facebook user’s lawsuit claims Vermont statute violates free speech rights

George Floyd protest in Brattleboro
Several hundred Black Lives Matter supporters march through downtown Brattleboro in June 2020. Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

BRATTLEBORO — A local Black Lives Matter supporter questioned by police after revealing a critical Facebook commenter to an “exposing every racist” group has filed a lawsuit challenging a state statute that prohibits disturbing the peace by “electronic communications.”

Brattleboro resident Isabel Vinson is suing the state in U.S. District Court almost two years after she faced criminal charges for directing people to a local man’s social media pages — an action that led him to call authorities and complain of online harassment.

According to court papers, Vinson, who is white, saw a Facebook post by Brattleboro resident Christian Antoniello in June 2020 responding to Black Lives Matter protests against the Minneapolis police murder of Minnesotan George Floyd.

“How about all lives matter,” Antoniello posted in a meme on his personal page. “Not black lives, not white lives. Get over yourself no one’s life is more important than the next. Put your race card away and grow up.”

Vinson responded with her own Facebook message.

“Disgusting,” she wrote before commenting that Antoniello “thinks this is okay and no matter how many people try and tell him it’s wrong he doesn’t seem to care.” 

Vinson shared the post with a Facebook group called “Exposing Every Racist.” She urged people to “leave a review” on the page of Antoniello’s local business, the Harmony Underground marijuana and CBD supply shop.

Brattleboro police, receiving a report that Antoniello and his wife feared for their safety, went on to cite Vinson under a state statute that targets people “with intent to terrify, intimidate, threaten, harass, or annoy” others electronically. It calls for fines up to $250 or imprisonment up to three months.

After the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont inquired about the incident, police offered to drop criminal charges and divert the matter to a local alternative justice program. When Vinson rejected that offer, authorities closed the case altogether.

Vinson, however, has yet to move on.

“As a result of the citation, Ms. Vinson’s speech has been chilled,” her lawsuit states. “She has been reluctant to post on Facebook, especially posts criticizing local businesses, because she has a real and imminent fear of future prosecution.”

The lawsuit argues the state statute cited by police is “at once vague and exceedingly broad in scope” and violates the U.S. Constitution’s First and Fourteenth Amendments. Vinson and the ACLU are asking the court to issue an injunction prohibiting its future enforcement.

“Vermont police should have better things to do than targeting and criminally citing Vermonters for non-threatening Facebook posts,” Jay Diaz, ACLU general counsel and one of Vinson’s four lawyers, said in a statement.

Added state ACLU Executive Director James Lyall: “In these times more than ever, it’s important to recognize that a healthier democracy requires a free exchange of ideas.”

The lawsuit names Vermont Attorney General TJ Donovan and Windham County State’s Attorney Tracy Shriver as defendants. Asked to respond, Donovan’s Chief of Staff Charity Clark limited herself to “the Attorney General’s Office is currently reviewing the complaint.”

Brattleboro has hired a new police chief, Norma Hardy, since the incident. Hardy, the first Black woman to serve in her role both locally and statewide, said a review of the case showed “all policies and procedures were followed” and came solely in response to Antoniello’s complaints of harassment.

Clarification: An earlier version of this story referred imprecisely to the origin of a Brattleboro man's Facebook post. It was from a meme.

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Kevin O'Connor

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