The publisher of a neo-Nazi website who called on his readers to launch a “troll storm” against a Whitefish woman can’t use the First Amendment as cover for the ensuing harassment — at least not yet.
Andrew Anglin, who publishes the Daily Stormer, is being sued by Tanya Gersh, who along with her family received more than 700 “disparaging and/or threatening messages” filled with “ethnic slurs and misogynistic rants.”
In an order issued Wednesday in Missoula, U.S. District Court Judge Dana Christensen denied Anglin’s motion to dismiss the complaint. Anglin had argued the First Amendment protects the speech at issue and said he could not be held liable for the speech of others.
“The Court has thoroughly considered his free speech arguments and finds that a decision for Anglin at this stage would, at minimum, be premature,” wrote Christensen in an order that adopts U.S. Magistrate Judge Jeremiah Lynch’s earlier findings.
In the order, the judge notes Anglin publishes “an alt-right website, the Daily Stormer, which derives its name from Der Sturmer, an unofficial pro-Nazi propaganda tabloid.” In 2016, Anglin called on his readers to direct an “old fashioned Troll Storm” directed at Gersh, publishing her contact information along with that of her husband and 12-year-old son.
Gersh is a real estate agent, and the Daily Stormer focused on her interaction with Sherry Spencer, another Whitefish resident and mother of “prominent neo-Nazi Richard Spencer,” the order said. Gersh discussed the sale of real estate owned by Spencer, who was “facing boycotts related to her son’s notoriety.”
On his website, Anglin described Gersh’s behavior as extortion, the judge said. The publisher “drew heavily on crude ethnic stereotypes, painting Gersh as acting in furtherance of a perceived Jewish agenda and using Holocaust imagery and rhetoric.”
In the order, the judge said there is no “categorical exception to the First Amendment for harassing or offensive speech.” But he said the First Amendment’s protections are not absolute, and they are “particularly strong” when the speech involves “matters of public concern.”
In this instance, however, the speech appeared aimed at a personal agenda. Anglin did not use his words to discuss broader public issues, such as the “alt-right agenda,” the judge said; instead, the defendant “exploited” the prejudices of his readers to “specifically target one individual.”
“The Court agrees with Judge Lynch that Gersh presented a cognizable theory by which the messages left by Daily Stormer readers may form a basis for damages against Anglin,” the order said.
The judge also said Gersh alleged she was trying to exercise her privacy rights and freely practice her religion, Judaism. “The Court agrees with Judge Lynch that Gersh’s claim may proceed.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center is representing Gersh and submitted comments to the Missoulian. In a statement from the Center, deputy legal director David Dinielli said the order Wednesday confirmed an earlier court decision that a “troll storm” deserves no First Amendment protection.
“Today’s ruling underscores what both we and our client have said from the beginning of this case — that online campaigns of hate, threats, and intimidation have no place in a civil society, and enjoy no protection under our Constitution,” Dinielli said.