Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has long postured as an absolute defender of “free speech” online, especially after private social media firms declined to provide a platform to his deadly misinformation during the heart of the COVID-19 pandemic. But he hired Kyle Rittenhouse’s former attorney to deliver a kill shot to an anonymous DailyKos blogger who penned an article he disliked.
That DailyKos writer, who for two decades has contributed to the site’s community section under the name “DowneastDem,” has revealed his identity to The Daily Beast—as well as the extent of Kennedy and lawyer Robert Barnes’ efforts to punish him for a brief post detailing the now-presidential aspirant’s attendance at an extremist-led demonstration in Berlin during summer 2020. The piece, headlined “Anti-Vaxxer RFK JR. joins neo-Nazis in massive Berlin ‘Anti-Corona’ Protest,” translated and summarized a German publication’s description of a sprawling and raucous mass gathering in the capital spearheaded by various far-right organizations in opposition to lockdown policies.
Numerous outlets covered Kennedy’s speech and participation in the day’s events by neo-Nazis, the Hitler-curious Alternative for Deutschland Party, and members of the paranoid neo-monarchist Reichsburger movement, which last year plotted a putsch against the democratically elected German government. But the Martha’s Vineyard habitue singled out the anonymous DailyKos article, launching a lawsuit in November 2020 to force the online publication to divulge DowneastDem’s real name.
That litigation stalled in New York and California courts, but Kennedy apparently continued his investigation into the man behind the moniker—finally mailing a menacing draft complaint this spring seeking a minimum $1 million settlement from one David Vickrey.
“Please be advised that I have been retained by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. to pursue civil claims against you arising from defamatory statements you made about Mr. Kennedy in 2020,” an attached missive from Barnes reads. “I am sending you this letter before filing the attached draft complaint, to give you the opportunity to discuss a monetary settlement of Mr. Kennedy's claims against you, at this early stage of the litigation."
Barnes initially gave Vickrey a deadline of May 22 of this year to reach a settlement, before moving the goalposts back to Aug. 30 in subsequent correspondence. The draft complaint indicated Kennedy intended to file in New York federal court, though he subsequently requested a jury trial against Vickrey in Rockingham, New Hampshire on Aug. 29, though neither he nor Vickrey resides there.
The attorney did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Vickrey contrasted Kennedy’s incessant whimpering about supposed “censorship” of online pseudoscience superspreaders with his years-long crusade against a single private citizen’s DailyKos diary.
“In my opinion the guy is a complete fraud. He wants total freedom to spread his lies online, but write something about him he doesn’t like, and he says ‘I’ll sue you,’” Vickrey told The Daily Beast.
The Kennedy campaign did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
The draft complaint opens with a boast about the plaintiff’s pedigree, calling him "the scion of a storied Democratic American family.”
“Mr. Kennedy is decidedly not a Nazi and does not affiliate with Nazis,” the initial paragraph continues.
The crux of Kennedy’s claims is that, while Nazis and their collaborators abounded outside the Bundestag that day—and some even tried to storm the German parliament—the American jet-setter addressed a separate assembly elsewhere in the Tiergarten park organized by a group of wholesome folks called Quendenken.
“In truth, Mr. Kennedy gave a speech for peace and freedom in Berlin on Aug. 29, 2020, initiated by the group Querdenken—a democratic movement whose name means ‘lateral thinking’ and who vehemently oppose all forms of fascism and extremism,” the Barnes-written document reads, referring to Kennedy’s rant about Bill Gates and 5G. “Despite requests from Mr. Kennedy, Defendants have failed and refused to take down the Defamatory Article.”
The problem with this argument is that The Daily Beast and numerous other organizations have extensively documented Querdenken’s extremist affinities and associations. Not only does it indulge in QAnon conspiracies and fawn over Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, but the U.S. State Department has highlighted its “anti-Semitic rhetoric and views,” and a top police official in the German city of Bremen has described it as “a serious threat to public security.” A report by that official noted that Querdenken is a “heterogeneous” group of extremists, but noted its links to neo-Nazi and Reichsburger networks—as well as to a plot to assassinate the premier of the state of Saxony. The report further identified Querdenken as the main organizing force behind all anti-lockdown activities in Berlin the day of Kennedy’s speech, as well as behind the attack on the German parliament that day.
These findings match those of the nonprofit consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, which filed briefs on behalf of Vickrey when he was trying to preserve his anonymity in the initial Kennedy suit. Paul Levy, one of the organization’s attorneys, noted that Kennedy’s opening remarks to the frothing mob in Berlin drew attention to already existing media reports about neo-Nazi involvement in the event.
This, Levy argued, would make it nigh-impossible for Kennedy to show Vickrey defamed him.
“It’s hard to see how a blog post saying ‘Kennedy joins Nazis at this rally,’ when he goes knowing there’s a widespread knowledge that there’s a strong presence of Nazis, how he can say there’s an actual intention of malice,” Levy said, referencing the legal standard the silver spoon-wielder would have to meet. “I haven’t seen any complaint that Kennedy has filed that seems at all likely to succeed.”
The hopelessness of Kennedy’s case makes the suit against Vickrey this year all the more suspect, said Levy.
“It’s certainly sent with an intention of intimidation,” Levy argued. “Like many people, Kennedy thinks free speech is not for everybody.”
The irony, according to Vickrey, is that his decision to write about Kennedy’s adventures in Deutschland had little to do with Kennedy himself. A former student at the Universities of Cologne and Freiburg, who wrote his doctoral dissertation at Harvard on the Weimar Republic, Vickrey told The Daily Beast he has long observed the currents of the country’s far-right.
“I follow right-wing developments in Germany very closely,” he said. “I was never very interested in Kennedy, but I wondered, ‘Why would an American go over there and speak at this rally by this right wing extremist anti-vaxxer group?’”
The unmasked blogger told The Daily Beast that Kennedy’s vast personal resources to pursue his vendetta had caused some anxiety for his family.
“I’m just really pissed off at the guy, and would like to get as much information out there as possible to show the guy is a fraud,” Vickrey said.