One year after acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse, the battle to define his public image rages on

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Kyle Rittenhouse was acquitted of murder charges in Kenosha one year ago, but that hasn’t kept him from being called a murderer on social media.

The former Antioch resident has vowed to sue celebrities and media figures who have used such language to describe him, but his attorney, Todd McMurtry, told the Tribune a larger goal is to change the discourse about Rittenhouse.

“That’s the whole point of a lot of the litigation I’m involved in, to tamp down the way people conduct themselves online,” said McMurtry, who specializes in high-profile defamation lawsuits. “When you start making statements that are provably false, you’ve crossed the line.”

That promises to add a new chapter in the still-intense struggle to define Rittenhouse’s public image following a trial that captured global attention.

Rittenhouse was just 17 when he shot two men to death and wounded a third during a night of unrest in 2020 that followed the police shooting of Jacob Blake, who is Black.

Kenosha County prosecutors charged him with homicide but he claimed self-defense. At the end of a 15-day trial, jurors declared him not guilty.

His lead defense attorney told reporters at the time he hoped Rittenhouse would keep a low profile following the verdict, but that hasn’t happened. Despite initially expressing a reluctance to be “a cause person,” Rittenhouse has embraced the attention, becoming a figurehead in conservative politics and the gun rights movement.

“I’m just getting warmed up,” he told a critic on Twitter earlier this month. “Get comfortable.”

But while Rittenhouse promises to bring down the legal hammer on his detractors, he remains entangled in his own court proceedings. The family of Anthony Huber, one of the men Rittenhouse killed, is suing him and a host of Wisconsin law enforcement officials for allegedly conspiring to deprive Huber of his constitutional rights.

Rittenhouse’s attorneys filed papers in August trying to get him dismissed from the case, arguing among other things that a private detective who scoured the country for the teen delivered a summons to a home in Florida where Rittenhouse doesn’t actually live (the Tribune couldn’t reach Rittenhouse for comment, but his Twitter page gives his location as Texas).

A judge has yet to rule on the motion.

Rittenhouse and his backers are raising money for both legal fights. The Media Accountability Project, a Nevada-based LLC Rittenhouse introduced on the Fox News show “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” is accepting donations “to hold the media accountable in court for their malicious lies, defamation and propaganda.”

The teen has also endorsed a video game called “Kyle Rittenhouse’s Turkey Shoot” that he said is meant to fund his lawsuits. Footage of the game, which is supposed to be released before Thanksgiving, shows an avatar that resembles Rittenhouse firing at “fake news turkeys.”

A GiveSendGo campaign is raising money for his defense in the Huber lawsuit, as is the National Foundation for Gun Rights, which depicts the case as a battle for the Second Amendment.

“(If) Kyle loses, mark my words, it’ll be open season on gun owners and the God-given right to self-defense of every American,” foundation president Dudley Brown said on the group’s website.

Neither Brown nor the Media Accountability Project returned the Tribune’s requests for comment.

Rittenhouse’s attorney wouldn’t divulge the targets of any defamation lawsuits that might be filed, but in interviews he has singled out Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who described the shootings as “mass murder” shortly after they occurred.

McMurtry said he considers that a defamatory statement, and that comments made by others, including “social media influencers,” could be actionable as well.

“I don’t think the average person appreciates how destructive it is to attack people online; they’re inflicting real injury,” said McMurtry, who also represents Nick Sandmann, the former high school student who sued media organizations over how he was portrayed during an encounter with a Native American man at the Lincoln Memorial.

Some of the cases were settled, while others were dismissed but are under appeal.

Rittenhouse has said on Carlson’s show that the media have endangered his job prospects and made it hard for him to be in public without security. But Roy Gutterman, a law professor and head of the Tully Center for Free Speech at Syracuse University, said the teen will likely be considered a public figure if he sues, lowering his odds of success.

“He’s going to have to prove that these false statements were published with actual malice, known falsity,” he said. “ … The fact that so much of Rittenhouse’s public face comes out of a highly publicized public controversy should limit his ability to recover (damages).”

Legal matters aside, Rittenhouse recently announced plans for a YouTube channel dedicated to guns, though as of now he has posted just one short video.

In an interview last month with a blog called The Truth About Guns, Rittenhouse said he’s in pilot school and aims to fly for a freight company someday. He also said he continues to deal with post-traumatic stress disorder.

“(I’ll) just randomly get depressed or sad, wake up with night terrors or cold sweats … but you figure out things that help,” he said, crediting the support of his girlfriend, service dog, friends and psychiatrist.

Though Rittenhouse said immediately after his acquittal that he didn’t want to get involved in politics, he told the blog that changed when he discovered Second Amendment advocacy “is pretty political.” During the midterm elections, his Twitter page boosted right-wing U.S. Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert and other candidates he said would champion gun rights.

He has proven to be an enthusiastic combatant on the platform, mocking his critics, flaunting his newly acquired blue checkmark and posting self-referential memes: One uses footage of him sobbing on the witness stand in Kenosha to blame President Joe Biden for high gas prices.

That kind of culture war posturing may complicate any reputation shift Rittenhouse might want to achieve, said Joseph Blaney, an Illinois State University communications professor who has written about image restoration.

“You do have to pick your objectives,” he said. “I don’t know what his intent is, but if he was intending to cultivate an image as a fellow traveler of the right, he’s doing that more effectively than if his goal was to strike a conciliatory tone with the public in order to improve his image.”