By Natalie Jacobsen
A tale of two incidents at the University of Virginia School of Law library has prompted the administration to restrict access to students-only for the exam period, which ends May 11.
On April 18, Charlottesville’s embattled whites-righter, Jason Kessler, entered the school’s library and plopped down in a central location to do what the other students had been trying to do: study.
But unlike for the students that roam the hallways daily, his legal research did not turn into an all-nighter among the books. His presence was quickly noticed, with students and professors taking personal action. A 3L—third-year law student—says Kessler was researching a way to petition his permit denial.
One librarian, Ben Doherty, who is an active member of Showing Up for Racial Justice, excused himself from the library when Kessler arrived. Doherty, who has been a target in Kessler’s tweets, declined to comment at this time.
Says a 2L, who asked not to be named, “A [group] of students and Professor [Anne] Coughlin were telling him to leave. Video was taken by him and by those who went to silently protest.” The silent protest came in the form of signs with messages such as “Blood on your hands” quickly printed off and held up “as he pretended to read,” says the 2L. Over the course of an hour and a half, the group fluctuated between five and 15 law school people.
Alicia Penn, who left the school when she heard Kessler was on grounds, says, “some allies really stepped up to the plate and put their bodies on the line.”
Two police arrived to observe. Eventually, Kessler responded to the presence of a handful of students and became loud, blasting racist and sexist statements as he stormed through the hallway and calling a friend to pick him up “because he didn’t trust the police, in his own words,” says the 2L. “He looked pissed off, even though the police and students were not forcing him out.”
No email alerts were sent to the student body while Kessler was on grounds.
Professor Coughlin has been leading the charge to dismiss Kessler entirely from the law school property. The university previously rejected the law school administration’s request for an outright ban, despite allowing homeless and drunk persons to be barred from accessing the school in the past. The library is open to the public during business hours.
Kessler is the organizer of the infamous Unite the Right rally and one of the alleged leaders who directed hundreds of white supremacists to carry tiki torches across UVA Grounds and Lawn last summer.
An impromptu forum to discuss the incident drew in students and faculty, who called for action. Dean Risa Goluboff seemed overwhelmed with emotion and said she “let down her students,” according to Penn. No immediate action was taken as far as students were concerned, and the issue went unresolved publicly for several days.
UVA law spokesperson Mary Wood, who initially did not return phone calls, now says the law school has been actively working with President Teresa Sullivan, the university counsel’s office and the police since April 18.
“I’m really disheartened by the university’s response,” says another 2L, who asked that he not be named because of threats from the alt-right. “The administration and police department should issue a no-trespass order against Kessler. There’s a record built that establishes he’s a danger to our community. They have all the information they need and they’ve done nothing while students at the law school have been dealing with this for two weeks right before finals. As a student of color, I expect more from UVA.”
Yesterday Kessler made a return to the law school, but this visit was cut much shorter. He was given a space in a staff office to continue his legal research, according to student sources, when a community activist entered the room. A law school administrator asked Eric Martin to leave and warned him he’d be arrested if he refused. When Martin did not go, two police officers on hand arrested him for trespassing, according video of the encounter.
Wood says Kessler was not given an office and he was being assisted by a law librarian in the librarian’s office.
In a video, Martin says, “If you want to arrest me and not Jason Kessler sitting right there, then go ahead.”
Martin came to grounds after Solidarity Cville tweeted about Kessler’s reappearance at the law school.
This time, Kessler approached Doherty near the circulation desk, and their voices escalated as Doherty stepped in to ask Kessler to leave, according to witnesses. A group of students gathered, brandishing their recording devices, and watched silently through their screens. Police soon escorted Kessler out peacefully.
The law school sent out an email alert and a follow-up once “the disturbance [had] been resolved.” Dean Goluboff wrote in the email, “Since last week, we have been working toward limiting access…and the plan was for the new policy to go into effect tomorrow morning. Given today’s events, I have decided to implement that policy immediately.”
Some students were not satisfied last week—nor this week—with the school’s response.
Says second-year Elizabeth Sines, who is currently one of a dozen plaintiffs suing Kessler for injury at the August 12 rally, “At this point, there are a group of us students trying to determine how best to respond if he comes here again, because we realize we can’t rely on the university to do so.”
Goluboff’s email reads, “These two trying events have caused much distress. I share in that distress, and I am devoting my full attention to these matters.”
Correction: The date of Kessler’s first visit was April 18, not April 20.
Updated 3:13pm with additional information from UVA law spokesperson Mary Wood.
Updated 4:38 to remove the name of a person incorrectly identified.