The right to free speech protected under the U.S. Constitution gives Americans broad allowances to say extremely bigoted, mean-spirited and disgusting things online about other people. Perhaps nobody understood just how broad those allowances were than leading neo-Nazi blogger Andrew Anglin — who refers to Jewish people on his site as “kikes,” black people as “niggers,” gay people — or those he perceives as gay — as “faggots,” and has a whole section called The Jewish Problem.
Last last year, the self-proclaimed white supremacist decided to take his hateful rhetoric a step further. On December 16, Anglin authored a post on the Daily Stormer goading his readers to engage in a “troll storm.” The target: a Jewish realtor in Montana named Tanya Gersh, who Anglin was convinced was “extorting” Sherry Spencer, the mother of leading white supremacist Richard Spencer.
In the post, titled ‘Jews Targeting Richard Spencer’s Mother for Harassment and Extortion – TAKE ACTION!,’ Anglin writes, “Let’s Hit Em Up. Are y’all ready for an old fashioned Troll Storm? Because AYO - it’s time, fam.” The post contains a substantial amount of contact information for Gersh — who he calls a “whore” — her husband, and one of her sons, a 12-year-old who Anglin calls “a scamming kike” and “creepy little faggot.”
Anglin asks his readers to contact the Gershes and “make your opinions known.” He asks them to call them, email them, tweet them, or “if you’re in the area, maybe you should stop by and tell her in person what you think of her actions.” He explicitly writes that no one should do anything violent, but adds, “It is very important that we make them feel the kind of pressure they are making us feel.”
And “hit em up” his followers did, which legal experts said could land Anglin in trouble in court.
In a lawsuit filed this week, Gersh alleges more than 700 instances of harassment directed at her and her family in connection with the “troll storm” orchestrated by Anglin. These include emails to her reading, “Ratfaced criminals who play with fire tend to get thrown in the oven,” and “This is the goylash. You remember the last goylash, don’t you Tanya? Merry Christmas, you Christ killing Jew,” and one that simply reads “Death to Tanya” repeated in the message about 100 times.
In the months after Anglin’s call for harassment, Gersh also received phone calls at home. According to complaint, when she picked up one caller said, “You should have died in the Holocaust with the rest of your people.” Another call consisted only of the sounds of guns being fired.
And how did Daily Stormer readers respond to Anglin’s call to target her son? One person tweeted at him, “psst kid, there’s a free Xbox One inside the oven” — and included a photo of an oven.
On a call with reporters on Tuesday, Gersh said that the threats have caused her to gain weight, her hair to fall out, and said she’s had to quit her job. At one point during the “troll storm” campaign, she said she came home to a dark house, her husband waiting inside with the bags packed. “We really thought we had to run for safety in the middle of the night,” Gersh said.
Since the first post on December 16, according to the lawsuit, he has published 30 posts calling for actions against Gersh. “This was really terrorism,” Gersh said Tuesday. “We didn’t get teased, we got terrorized.”
According to court records, Anglin has not responded yet to the lawsuit. One of Gersh’s attorneys, Richard Cohen, the president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, told BuzzFeed News on Wednesday that they haven’t served Anglin with the suit yet. Anglin is a resident of Ohio, but reportedly could be residing in the Philippines or somewhere in Europe.
When he does respond, legal experts expect Anglin will raise some sort of First Amendment defense. However, in order to win in court, he will have to prove to a jury that the speech he engaged in was not intended to cause harm.
“Speech that a reasonable person would construe as harm, that’s not protected. In our system, you can hold discriminatory views, you can’t act on them,” David Schulz, a partner at Levine, Sullivan, Koch, Schulz, who has 35 years of First Amendment litigation experience.
“If [Anglin] can say, I’m just expressing an opinion and try to pull this into the sphere of free speech, it gets back to what a reasonable person would understand as protected speech” Schulz says.
To prove that he was just expressing his opinion, Anglin might argue that he was merely republishing Sherry Spencer’s Medium blog post in which she accuses Gersh of attempting to extort her as part of a real estate deal to sell off a piece of property in Whitefish, Montana.
In November 2016, according to the lawsuit, Gersh reached out to Sherry Spencer about a planned protest outside a building that Spencer owns in downtown Whitefish. Gersh claims that she informed Sherry Spencer about the demonstrations, which were being planned in response to a viral video of her son, Richard, leading a “Hail Trump!” chant, and offered to help Spencer sell the building. According to the lawsuit, Gersh and Sherry Spencer began to discuss working together to sell the property. But then a month later, Sherry Spencer apparently had a change of heart, and published the Medium post accusing Gersh of extortion.
Montana Law School Professor Eduardo Capulong points out that if Anglin could prove that he was merely commenting on this purported feud between the Spencers and Gersh, he would be protected. “But using it as basis to attack without verifying is reckless,” he added.
“It’s one thing, if Anglin said: Oh, look at this blog post, and fuck them. That’s arguably protected by free speech,” Capulong said. “But then, you go beyond that and say: target this family.”
Asked if Anglin’s calls for his readers not to be violent would protect him, Capulong said, “I don’t think so. Given everything that he was doing, and invoking Nazi ideology, images, I think any reasonable person would see that as a call to violence.”
In this case, Anglin is accused of four charges — invasion of privacy, intentional infliction of emotional distress, malice, and violation of Montana’s Anti-Intimidation Act. All four carry the possibility of damages that Anglin may have to pay to Gersh if the case goes in her favor.
But in order to obtain punitive damages — meant to punish Anglin in a substantial way that deters others — Gersh will have to prove malice, which has a higher standard in court. However, Capulong believes that Gersh has a good case for malice. “I was shocked to see those emails. That’s really malicious I think,” he said.
Gersh’s attorneys have called for at least $75,000 in damages for each count — the minimum amount necessary to file the case in federal court.
Cohen says that they have “no idea” how much money Anglin has — which could factor into the judge or jury's final decision on how much he would have to pay out. However, if he loses — and regardless of the award amount — the law dictates two key things. One, Anglin will not be able to seek bankruptcy against a judgment against him. And two, a judge can enforce a judgment for 20 years — essentially going after future money he makes off the Daily Stormer.
“We’ll follow him wherever he goes,” Cohen said.
Michael Hayes is a senior reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Mike Hayes at email@example.com.
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