Right-wing activists Jacob Wohl and Jack Burkman’s robocalls targeting Black voters violated the Voting Rights Act and Ku Klux Klan Act — and the question isn’t close enough to require a jury, a federal judge ruled.
“The Court recognizes that the free exchange of ideas on issues of public concern and the ability to engage in robust political discussion constitute the foundations of a democratic society,” Senior U.S. District Judge Victor Marrero wrote in a 111-page order on Wednesday.
Marrero nonetheless found that the evidence “establishes that the neighborhoods that Defendants targeted were not accidental or random,” finding that a reasonable jury couldn’t escape the conclusion that the pair wanted to “deny the right to vote specifically to Black voters.”
“Goofballs and political hucksters”
The ruling spells victory without a trial for The National Coalition on Black Civic Participation (NCBCP), a civil rights group that sued Wohl and Burkman in the Southern District of New York before the 2020 presidential election.
New York Attorney General Letitia James, who joined the lawsuit, said in a statement on Wednesday saying:
“Your vote is your voice, and I am proud that today the court ruled in our favor to uphold the most important cornerstone of our democracy. Wohl and Burkman engaged in a disgraceful campaign to intimidate Black voters, using threats and lies to keep them from making their voices heard in an attempt to secure the election for their preferred presidential candidate. I will always stand fierce in defense of New Yorkers’ right to vote, and anyone who attempts to take away that right will be met with the full force of the law.”
Wohl and Burkman have been tied to multiple political hoaxes targeting perceived rivals of former President Donald Trump, including then-Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Anthony Fauci, and ex-Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Prosecutors, regulators and common citizens claimed the duo crossed a line with 85,000 robocalls, sent out nationally to such locations as New York, Ohio, Michigan, Illinois and Pennsylvania.
Recorded by a woman identifying herself as “Tamika Taylor,” the robocalls largely targeted diverse regions with the false message that “if you vote by mail, your personal information will be part of a public database that will be used by police departments to track down old warrants, and [will] be used by credit card companies to collect outstanding debt.”
Though Wohl and Burkman painted themselves as “goofballs and political hucksters with an irreverent sense of humor,” Judge Marrero rejected that the robocalls were “mere hyperbole.”
“In addition to the specific harms that the call threatened, Defendants dressed the call with a veil of legitimacy to mislead its listeners into believing the statements made in the call were true,” Marrero added. “The Robocall framed Wohl and Burkman’s organization, Project 1599, as a ‘civil rights organization’ with a name reminiscent of the 1619 Project, an initiative of the New York Times that sought to recognize and commemorate the history of the first slave ship that carried enslaved Africans into the United States.”
The stunt also led to criminal prosecution. In the Ohio case, Wohl and Burkman were sentenced to spend 500 hours registering voters living in low-income neighborhoods in the Washington, D.C., area. That was after they pleaded guilty to a felony count of telecommunications fraud. Another case in Michigan remains pending.
“Angry black call backs”
Even the persona of the “Black activist,” the judge noted, was mistaken by some news organizations as a reference Breonna Taylor’s mother Tamika Palmer.
“The call markedly lacked any outlandish details or other cues that may indicate to an ordinary listener that it should not be taken seriously,” Marrero noted.
In October 2020, Marrero compared the robocalls to the Ku Klux Klan’s tactics, in a court order denouncing Wohl and Burkman’s “electoral terror.”
“In the current version of events, the means [Burkman and Wohl] use to intimidate voters, though born of fear and similarly powered by hate, are not guns, torches, burning crosses, and other dire methods perpetrated under the cover of white hoods,” the judge found at the time. “Rather, [Burkman and Wohl] carry out electoral terror using telephones, computers, and modern technology adapted to serve the same deleterious ends.”
That motion, however, was simply for a temporary restraining order preventing the pair from engaging in further robocalls — and forcing them to send “curative messages” informing the recipients of the ruling.
Since that time, Marrero said, emails showed that they planned to send the robocalls to “black neighborhoods.”
“The Robocall script itself also contained racially coded language and was imbued with numerous harmful racial stereotypes about the Black community in an effort to target Black voters,” Wednesday’s ruling states. “Further, each of the threatening messages contained in the Robocall also relied on harmful stereotypes of Black people, related to interactions with the criminal justice system, the amassing of debt, and resistance towards medicine.”
If there were any doubt of the intentions, Marrero said, all were eliminated by Burkman’s message to Wohl, “expressing his satisfaction that he was receiving ‘angry black call backs.””
NCBCP, Attorney General James and the robocall recipients have 20 days to submit their requests for damages, attorney’s fees, and costs. The attorney general’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Neither did Wohl’s counsel.
Read the ruling here.
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