National Coalition on Black Civic Participation vs. Wohl
In October 2020, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and co-counsel Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP filed a lawsuit and temporary restraining order in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. The two defendants in this case sent 85,000 robocalls to Black Americans in an attempt to scare them from voting. The lawsuit and temporary restraining order asked the court to immediately halt them from making any more robocalls, sending text messages, or using similar forms of mass communication.
The national Lawyers’ Committee argued that the two citizens engaged in a coordinated and calculated effort to intimidate the Black voters in violation of the Voting Rights Act and Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871. The robocalls contained a significant number of falsehoods and threats, many of which were based on systemic inequities that were particularly likely to resonate with and intimidate Black Americans.
The robocalls used a phony civil rights organization and a female speaker with a Black-sounding name to try to scare the listeners into not voting by mail. It falsely claimed that if you vote by mail, the police may try to track you down, debt collectors may come after you, or the CDC may try to use your information to forcibly vaccinate you. These are all threats designed to resonate with Black voters in particular.
Representing the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation and eight registered voters in New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, the plaintiffs allege that the defendants were responsible for a large scale, deceptive robocall campaign aimed specifically at suppressing the votes of Black Americans, and knowingly and willfully engaged in threatening and intimidating conduct.
At a preliminary hearing, the two admitted to creating and sending the robocalls and purposefully trying to inspire fear about voting by mail, but attempted to argue their actions were not illegal. Evidence from a parallel criminal prosecution in Michigan also showed that they explicitly targeted Black neighborhoods. On Oct. 28, 2020the Court issued a temporary restraining order, finding that plaintiffs are likely to prevail on their claims that the robocalls infringe on an individual’s right to vote, free of any intimidations or threats. In his ruling, Judge Marrero stated the two citizens were engaging in “electoral terror,” provoking the same types of fear that the Ku Klux Klan sought to produce. Judge Marrero also asserted that the court needed to act swiftly and effectively to combat these modern methods of voter intimidation.
The court prohibited the defendants from sending any more robocalls, text messages, or similar forms of mass communication before Election Day without prior approval and required them to send a “curative” robocall notifying all recipients of the first robocall that it was false and illegal.