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Vermont Legislature
Follow VPR's statehouse coverage, featuring Pete Hirschfeld and Bob Kinzel in our Statehouse Bureau in Montpelier.

Attorney General: No Charges In Racial Harassment Of Rep. Kiah Morris

Howard Weiss-Tisman
Kiah Morris, center, speaks at a press conference in Bennington Monday. Her husband, James Lawton is to her left while Attorney General TJ Donovan is to her right.

Attorney General TJ Donovan said Monday he will not file charges in the reported racial harassment of former State Rep. Kiah Morris, though he believes Morris and her family were victims.

Donovan  said he would not pursue a criminal case because the First Amendment protects free speech.

"The court tells us that where speech involves public officials or manners of public concern the First Amendment tolerates a great deal of speech that is hateful and offensive," Donovan said at a press conference in Bennington.

Morris was the only black female lawmaker in the legislature, and she won the Democratic nomination this summer. But she withdrew after reporting frequent incidences of racial threats and harassment.

The Bennington Police Department opened an investigation, but after Morris withdrew, Donovan said he would take over the probe and he brought the Vermont State Police in to assist.

At the press conference, Donovan announced a new statewide Bias Incident Reporting System that he said would better coordinate the reposnse to reports of all bias across Vermont.

He said the system could help people who report incients of bias seek civil damages.

"We did everything that we were told to do. Reported as we should, held nothing back, and trusted in a system that in the end was insufficient, and inept at dressing and repairing the harm done." — Kiah Morris, former Bennington representative

Donovan also said he would host at least three public forums to talk about hate crimes and bias incidents, with the initial forum scheduled for February in Bennington.

"I know Kiah Morris is not the first person, nor will she be the last person to experience racism," Donovan said. "Perhaps because of her status as an elected official, her experience received the most attention. But I know many people of color who do not have the profile of an elected official suffer from all different forms of racism in this state. We acknowledge this."

Morris, a Bennington resident, said the years of harrassment her family endured were rooted "in a legacy of white supremacy, mysogeny and inequity."

"We did everything that we were told to do. Reported as we should, held nothing back, and trusted in a system that in the end was insufficient, and inept at addresing and repairing the harm done," Morris said. "In the end we were told there was nothing to be done. Essentially our curent legal system told us that what was happening was acceptable."

Morris accused the Bennington Police Department of not taking her complaints seriously, but Donovan said he looked into the department's work and supported their actions.

Correction 01/16/19 9:00 a.m.: This story was updated to more accurately report the involvement of the Vermont State Police with the case.

Howard Weiss-Tisman is Vermont Public’s southern Vermont reporter, but sometimes the story takes him to other parts of the state.
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