Thou Shalt Not Duel: The 1810 Anti-Dueling Statute in 2018’s Virginia
On March 16, 2018, a black woman named Donna began screaming at a white man, Jason, when she saw him outside the Charlottesville General District Court. Donna was upset because she saw Jason as the reason for much of the racially motivated trouble that had plagued her city for the past year. In addition to screaming obscenities at him, she called him a “murderer” over the death of Heather Heyer, a subject reviewed on this blog last year.
You may not know Donna’s last name – Gasapo – but if you have been following the news at all, you definitely know Jason’s. His full name is Jason Kessler.
On June 29, 2018, Donna and Jason were together again. This time, they were inside the courtroom. Jason decided that something needed to be done about Donna’s threats and general lack of civility back on that March day. He sued her for $500 under Virginia’s anti-dueling statute.
Donna did not deny that she used aggressive language toward Jason back in March. In fact, she couldn’t deny it. They were caught on tape and presented as evidence during the trial. Her attorney instead argued that her words were protected by the First Amendment and that Kessler was, in reality, unharmed by them.
The judge disagreed – sort of. He awarded his decision to Kessler. It was merely a moral victory, though. Donna was ordered to pay Jason a grand total of $5 as a result of the verdict.
Did you catch which law Donna was found to have technically violated? It is often referred to as the 1810 anti-dueling statute. Once this statute was passed, death by duel became illegal in Virginia. In fact, the punishment under this statute for killing someone in a duel was death. Dueling was no longer a gentlemanly way to solve a disagreement. As of 1810, it was murder.
The Code of Virginia took it further than that, however. It also penalized “fighting words” that lead to duels. If you attempted to use language that would spark a duel, you could be in violation of this statute.
This is still a part of the law today. You might have to read the sentence a few times to understand what it means, but here it is. “All words shall be actionable which from their usual construction and common acceptance are construed as insults and tend to violence and breach of the peace.” No guidelines for punishment are given – just a definition of fighting words.
Still not too sure what that part of the law means? Well, this Charlottesville case helped to define it. In fact, that is why – even though she was only ordered to pay Kessler $5 as a result of her guilty verdict – Donna Gasapo and her lawyer are considering an appeal.
Don’t let one very important fact escape you before leaving this story. Even though Kessler was only suing Gasapo for $500, Gasapo hired an attorney to represent her (Kessler represented himself). This is something that you should always pursue whenever you are facing legal trouble of any kind. If this is something you are considering, call or e-mail now for a free consultation!
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