Group Presses AG Donovan On Lawmaker Harassment

  • Attorney General TJ Donovan, left, speaks with Kim Souza at Revolution in White River Junction, Vt., on Jan. 30. Donovan was at the shop to present Souza with 'Vermonter of the Month' recognition. Souza and some friends wanted to discuss the attorney general's decision not to press charges in a racial harassment case. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 1/30/2019 10:35:54 PM
Modified: 1/30/2019 10:35:58 PM

White River Junction — Longtime vintage clothing store co-owner Kim Souza has often used her shop as a venue for fashion shows or parties with live music. But on Wednesday, the first-term Hartford selectwoman utilized a visit from Vermont Attorney General TJ Donovan to spark a lively discussion about race relations.

Donovan, a Democrat some suspect may be laying the groundwork for a run for higher office, and two aides dropped by Souza’s Revolution store mid-morning to recognize her as “Vermonter of the Month,” given by his office to those who perform exemplary work in their communities.

Like many other supporters of former state Rep. Kiah Morris, D-Bennington, Souza was upset by Donovan’s announcement earlier this month that his office would not file criminal charges against self-described white nationalist Max Misch or others who posted racist messages toward Morris on social media. Morris, who had been the lone African-American woman in Vermont’s Legislature, in August opted not to run for re-election and then resigned a month later, citing the online posts and other incidents, including home and auto burglaries as well as vandalism near her home.

After a months-long probe that involved the FBI, Donovan announced on Jan. 14 that while Morris was the subject of race- and gender-based harassment, no charges would be filed due to a lack of sufficient evidence in the burglary cases and a lack of explicit threats of physical harm in the social media posts, as well as broad First Amendment protections especially relevant when public figures are involved.

Donvan’s stance isn’t sitting well with human rights activists, and Souza wanted Donovan to know that she isn’t thrilled, either.

She invited several friends to join in on Wednesday’s discussion, including Hartford Selectboard Chairman Simon Dennis and his partner, Elisabeth Cardle.

Dennis said the stakes are particularly high in the Morris case because of her stature helping to advance diversity in the Legislature.

“I’m not a constitutional specialist, but the fact the only African-American female state rep decided to step down due to harassment she experienced is a huge loss,” Dennis said just prior to Donovan’s arrival. “It’s very important to Vermont’s economic and cultural future that we’re able to support and make the most of every person of color who enlists in public service.”

After greeting Donovan and accepting her award, Souza wasted little time before tapping into the Morris issue.

“I’m not questioning your legal responsibilty or interpretation of the law,” Souza said. “From my perspective, we would like to work toward improving conditions and be part of the dialogue that supports people of color in Vermont, not only with legislation but in ways that help people feel valued in their communities.”

Donovan replied that while it is his job to consider facts and evidence and appply it to laws, he considers the Morris scenario a wakeup call about racism in Vermont and the importance of dialogue to help eradicate it. He noted his office’s work toward a “bias incident reporting system” that will aim to help officials better respond to threatening language that isn’t necessarily criminal, and a forthcoming series of community forums around Vermont designed to prevent hate crimes.

Donovan, however, continually defended the decision not to press charges against any of the people who verbally targeted Morris.

“When you’re talking about someone’s constitutional right to free speech, (pressing charges) can’t be about whether someone dislikes or disagrees with what you’re saying,” Donovan said. “It’s not hard to imagine the scenerio being flipped, where people would disagree with us. It can’t be left up to the biases of people in power.”

Paige Heverly, of White River Junction, suggested the Morris case should supersede free speech protection because of psychological injuries Morris was subjected to.

“Even when there is no explicit, physical threat, the impact of psychological trauma is very real,” Heverly said. “There should be (laws) that acknowledge that.”

Hartford Committee on Racial Equity and Inclusion chairman John Hall, who did not attend the event with Donovan, said he wasn’t surprised by the prosecutor’s office findings, but considers it unjustifiable.

“Hate speech and harassment should not be protected as free speech, especially when it involves direct correspondence from one individual to another,” Hall said in a phone interview. “These aren’t public speeches, these are things like emails and phone calls. That doesn’t fall under the scope of free speech.”

Donovan agreed that more protections for the verbally assaulted need to be in place — and he’s hopeful Vermonters will continue to take action.

“When you look back at history, people always rise up,” Donovan said. “The fight for equity never stops, but people always seem to take up the cause when needed, and that’s what gives me hope. That is our challenge.”

After Donovan and his team departed, Souza said she was satisfied with his stance in regard to current laws, but not with the overall situation regarding Morris.

“It’s still terrible, what happened to her,” Souza said. “There is a lot we need to do to change the culture and find ways to prevent these kinds of things from happening.”

Jared Pendak can be reached at or 603-727-3216.

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