The lawsuit against 64 people who spoke in opposition to Nova Armory, the Lyon Park gun store, helped provide the impetus for a state bill to protect protesters from similar court action.
House Bill 1941, introduced by southwest Virginia Del. Terry Kilgore (R-1) and co-patroned by local Del. Mark Levine (D-45), provides immunity from a lawsuit to anyone who speaks out on a matter of public concern, unless they knowingly make false statements. Defendants in so-called “strategic lawsuits against public participation” could be awarded reasonable attorney fees and costs under the bill.
It passed unanimously in both the House of Delegates and the state Senate, and awaits the signature of Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D).
Levine said the desire to protest goes beyond party politics, and the new bill protects the First Amendment rights of those across the political spectrum.
“This is not a partisan issue,” he wrote in a message to supporters. “Liberals will want to protest gun stores, just like conservatives will want to protest affordable health care. But people should have a right to state their opinions and protest without fearing a lawsuit.”
Levine had initially proposed a bill of his own related to the subject, House Bill 2446, with sanctions against plaintiffs who “bring an action to deter someone from exercising his constitutional rights.” That bill was tabled in the House Committee for Courts and Justice. Levine then signed onto HB1941 as chief co-patron.
Nova Armory sued opponents who spoke out against its opening, including Arlington County’s seven state representatives, who signed a letter to landlord Katya Varley on General Assembly letterhead expressing their objections.
Nova Armory alleged in its lawsuit that the owner and landlord were harassed, and that death threats were mailed to Lauren Pratte, the store’s 16-year-old “owner-in-training.”
In a press release last March threatening such action, Pratte said ownership were concerned about the infringement on their civil rights by their state representatives.
“We’ve given up on fact-checking all their false statements,” Pratte said at the time. “Instead we’ve told our lawyers to concentrate on any actions in which we are deprived of our civil liberties by these so-called public servants — they’ll regret any abuse of their authority.”
But one day before the lawsuit was due to be heard in Arlington County Circuit Court, the Washington Post reported the store filed a notice to drop the suit.
“I am delighted — though not surprised — to learn that Nova Armory nonsuited its lawsuit today,” Del. Rip Sullivan (D-48), another defendant, said in a statement to the Post. “From the very beginning it was clear that this lawsuit had no basis in law or fact.”
At the monthly meeting of the Arlington County Democratic Committee earlier this month, Levine said the bill has a broader mission beyond this one lawsuit. Instead, he said, it protects anyone who wishes to exercise their First Amendment rights.
“If you want to go out and protest, you are free to go out and protest,” he said. “They can’t sue you.”