This story has been updated to include a statement from the Washington Post Newspaper Guild.
Within a couple hours of tweeting about former NBA star Kobe Bryant’s rape allegation, Julie Lalonde had received thousands of replies—many of them advising her to kill herself, or that she deserved to be raped.
Lalonde, an Ottawa-based women’s rights advocate, was reacting to news of Bryant’s death by helicopter crash when she tweeted “Kobe Bryant was a rapist. In case y’all forget that over the next few days.”
Bryant, 41, and eight other passengers including his 13-year-old daughter Gianna died Sunday when their helicopter crashed in Calabasas, California.
Widely recognized as one of the greatest professional basketball players of all time, Bryant won five NBA Championships as an LA Laker; he retired in 2016. But his legacy is by no means untarnished. In 2003, Bryant was accused of raping a 19-year-old woman at a hotel he was staying at in Eagle, Colorado. The woman, an employee at the hotel, alleged Bryant choked her and forced her to have intercourse; evidence of the alleged attack included bruises on the woman’s neck and vaginal injuries. Bryant said the sex was consensual. The allegation never made it to trial. Ultimately, Bryant’s accuser decided not to testify; his defence team raised her sexual history in preliminary hearings, and she was identified and smeared by tabloids.
Bryant later settled with his accuser in a separate civil suit. In a public statement, he apologized to her and said he understood she did not consider the sex consensual.
“Although I truly believe this encounter between us was consensual, I recognize now that she did not and does not view this incident the same way I did. After months of reviewing discovery, listening to her attorney, and even her testimony in person, I now understand how she feels that she did not consent to this encounter.”
As news of Bryant’s death was trickling in, Lalonde said she immediately noticed “fawning” over him, with no mention of the rape case.
“For me, it was important to just sort of remind progressives that while you’re fawning over your favourite basketball star, women are watching that and thinking ‘OK, you don’t care that he did this heinous thing.’”
Lalonde, whose book Resilience is Futile: The Life and Death and Life of Julie S. Lalonde chronicles her experience as a stalking victim, is no stranger to online hate. But she was still taken aback at the vicious messages she received, including emails and tweets telling her that she should have died in the helicopter crash. Several Twitter accounts have also posted the addresses of other women named Julie Lalonde in Ottawa, in the hopes of getting her doxxed.
As a result, Lalonde said she has deleted her tweets, locked her account, and been in touch with the Ottawa police.
She’s not the only person who has received intense backlash for referencing Bryant’s rape case.
Washington Post politics reporter Felicia Sonmez has been suspended from her job after she tweeted a link to a 2016 Daily Beast article about the alleged sexual assault.
“Any public figure is worth remembering in their totality even if that public figure is beloved and that totality unsettling,” she tweeted.
Sonmez followed up by sharing the abusive emails she was receiving including one that said “Go fuck yourself. Cunt.”
In a statement, Tracy Grant, managing editor of The Washington Post, said “National political reporter Felicia Sonmez was placed on administrative leave while The Post reviews whether tweets about the death of Kobe Bryant violated The Post newsroom’s social media policy. The tweets displayed poor judgment that undermined the work of her colleagues.“
On Monday afternoon, the Washington Post Newspaper Guild, the union that represents Washington Post workers, issued a statement addressed to Grant and the paper’s executive editor Marty Baron, condemning Sonmez’s suspension.
“Felicia had to leave her home out of fear for her safety and has gotten insufficient guidance from the Post on how to protect herself,” said the statement, which was signed by dozens of Washington Post employees.
The statement criticized the Post’s social media policy as being overly broad and vague. It called for Sonmez to be allowed to return to work and provided with a security detail.
“The Post’s handling of this issue shows utter disregard for best practices in supporting survivors of sexual violence — including the practices we use in our own journalism. Assault survivors inside and outside this newsroom deserve treatment that is fair and transparent; that does not blame victims or compromise the safety of survivors.”
Toronto Star sports columnist Bruce Arthur also caught some heat for discussing Bryant’s rape case during a panel on Canadian sports network TSN Sunday. However, he noted the vitriol is nothing compared to what women like Lalonde and Sonmez are dealing with.
Arthur said he covered the 2004 NBA finals, during which Bryant was flying back and forth from the courtroom to the playoffs.
“It was a huge part of his career, of his legacy, of his life,” said Arthur. “Kobe said specifically that after the Colorado case, he changed the way he decided to be, he decided to be a more authentic person.”
The angry reaction to discussing the case isn’t surprising to Arthur. With sports, as with politics, he said people tend to cheer for their teams and their heroes, sometimes abandoning reason and perspective in the process.
“In terms of Kobe there’s an enormous amount of emotion that comes with this as well. It’s a death of a person who means a lot to a lot of people.”
Lalonde said nothing she tweeted is new information—and attacking her for saying it isn’t going to help Bryant’s legacy or his family.
She believes part of the anger comes from people not wanting to complicate a narrative around someone they adore.
“[Saying] this particular person you are fawning over needs an asterisk around his name is very, very, very, very far from ‘good, I’m glad he’s dead.’”
Follow Manisha on Twitter