Victims of neo-Nazi trolling in Whitefish, Mont., strike back in court

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Tanya Gersh (Photo: Dan Chung/Southern Poverty Law Center via AP)
Tanya Gersh (Photo: Dan Chung/Southern Poverty Law Center via AP)

This week, the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a lawsuit in federal court on behalf of Tanya Gersh, a Jewish mother and business owner from Whitefish, Mont., who was the main target of a vicious anti-Semitic “troll storm” launched by neo-Nazi blogger Andrew Anglin this past December.

Background: The drama began after Sherry Spencer, mother of well-known white nationalist leader Richard Spencer, authored a blog post claiming that Gersh, a real estate agent, had tried to pressure her to sell a building she owned in downtown Whitefish and publicly denounce her son’s political views or risk drawing protesters to her property. (Gersh and the SPLC describe a very different sequence of events in their complaint.) Anglin repeated Sherry Spencer’s claims on his neo-Nazi website, Daily Stormer, and urged followers to “take action” against Gersh and other members of the small Jewish community in Whitefish, a city of approximately 7,000.

Though Anglin himself never engaged directly with Gersh, the SPLC argues that he is responsible for the 700-plus harassing emails, tweets, Facebook posts, voicemails and other threatening messages received by Gersh, her husband, and even her 12-year-old son, causing them to fear for their lives. The complaint accuses Anglin of various torts, including intentional infliction of emotional distress and invasion of privacy.

“We didn’t know if they would come after us … [we] still don’t,” Gersh told reporters Tuesday, choking back tears as she described the barrage of threats she and her family have received, including countless references to the Holocaust and gas chambers.

“Once I answered the phone and all I heard were gunshots,” she said. “I have never been so scared in my entire life.”

Richard Spencer, who leads a movement that mixes racism, white nationalism and populism, speaks at Texas A&M University in December. (Photo: David J. Phillip/AP)
Richard Spencer, who leads a movement that mixes racism, white nationalism and populism, speaks at Texas A&M University in December. (Photo: David J. Phillip/AP)

The suit is a first for the SPLC in terms of targeting the perpetrator of a digital harassment campaign, but the principles at the core of the case are similar to many other lawsuits the center has filed against the Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups for nearly 40 years.

“In the old days, Anglin would’ve burned a cross on Tanya’s lawn to intimidate her,” SPLC president Richard Cohen told reporters Tuesday. “In the digital age, he launched a troll storm against.”

The method of harassment may be new, but then as now, Cohen said, “we always try to try to make leaders responsible for the actions of their followers.”

The SPLC, an Alabama-based legal advocacy group, has a long history of doing that. In 1980 it sued the Invisible Empire Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and several individual members after more than 100 Klansmen attacked a group of peaceful civil rights protesters in Decatur, Ala., with guns, clubs and sticks. Evidence discovered by SPLC investigators led the FBI to reopen its case on the attack, and prosecutors won convictions of nine Klansmen of criminal charges.

After 10 more years, the civil case was finally settled and the Klansmen were required to perform community service, pay damages, refrain from white supremacist activity and also attend a course on race relations taught by leaders of the same civil rights group whose members they’d attacked in 1979.

Since then, the SPLC has pursued a number of similar suits, seeking to hold hate groups and their leaders legally and financially responsible for acts of violence and harassment carried out by their members.

Supporters of the Ku Klux Klan and the Confederate flag yell at opposing demonstrators during a rally in Columbia, S.C., in July 2015. (Photo: Chris Keane/Reuters)
Supporters of the Ku Klux Klan and the Confederate flag yell at opposing demonstrators during a rally in Columbia, S.C., in July 2015. (Photo: Chris Keane/Reuters)

Before this week, the last such “hate” suit the group had filed was in 2007 against the Imperial Klans of America and four members who’d participated in the brutal beating of 16-year-old Jordan Gruver in Brandenburg, Ky., the previous summer. The SPLC successfully argued that, despite claiming to discourage illegal activity, the Klans’ leadership was responsible for promoting hate and violence against minorities. (The Klansmen reportedly called Gruver, who is of Panamanian-Indian decent, an “illegal spic” as they threw whiskey in his face, beat him and kicked him on the ground.) A jury awarded Gruver $2.5 million in damages.

Cohen acknowledged that Anglin urged followers to refrain from engaging in any violence or threats of violence. But Cohen dismissed this disclaimer as a flimsy defense in light of Anglin’s publishing photographs and personal contact information for Gersh and several other members of Whitefish’s Jewish community, whom he described as a “a vicious, evil race of hate-filled psychopaths.”

“To tell people to harass someone and then say ‘don’t do anything illegal’ is talking out of both sides of his mouth,” said Cohen. “I don’t think Andrew Anglin is going to be able to hide behind … others who carried out his bidding.”

Anglin did not respond to multiple requests for comment on this story.

Danielle Citron, a University of Maryland law professor and leading expert on cybercrimes, called the lawsuit “an important step forward” and commended the Gersh family for fighting back.

“So often people don’t want to sue,” said Citron. “Usually you just disappear because you’re terrified.”

In her book, “Hate Crimes in Cyberspace,” Citron makes the case that cyberharassment is a civil rights issue, but she told Yahoo News that the lack of legal ramifications has created a mentality of “I don’t give a shit because there aren’t consequences.”

Of course, Citron said, a win against Anglin is “not going to deter everyone because there are a lot of sick people in the world.” But, she argued, the more the law can be used to impose costly penalties for such behavior, “if these people are rational actors they will be deterred.”

Citron, who consulted on the SPLC’s complaint against Anglin, said she is confident that any First Amendment defense he may try to bring will fail.

“This isn’t hate speech,” she said. “This is the targeting — with racism and hatred and anti-Semitism — of a specific family with threats and defamation.”

The SPLC, which tracks hate groups in the United States, identifies Anglin as a “neo-Nazi,” and Citron would agree with that description based on the content of his blog posts and website, the Daily Stormer, named after the Hitler-era Nazi newspaper Der Stürmer. But, she clarifies, whether or not Anglin is actually affiliated with any sort of neo-Nazi group is irrelevant to the case against him.

“You can’t punish someone for having a viewpoint or for participating in a disgusting group that has disgusting political ideas,” she said. “That’s protected behavior.”

Activists protest at the “Love Not Hate” gathering in Whitefish, Mont. (Photo: Andrew Romano/Yahoo News)
Activists protest at the “Love Not Hate” gathering in Whitefish, Mont. (Photo: Andrew Romano/Yahoo News)

The troll storm may have subsided slightly, but the impact on Gersh and her family continues. Search “Tanya Gersh” in Google images and the first result is a photoshopped picture of Gersh with a yellow star of David on her forehead and the words “Filthy Juden” written in big bold letters across the bottom.

Gersh said the threats have forced her to stop working as a real estate agent for fear of putting her clients at risk. She now goes to trauma therapy twice a week and is experiencing anxiety-induced medical issues.

“Most importantly, I’m never feeling safe,” she said. “This went so far beyond harassment, this was terrorism.”

The suit did not specify an amount of monetary damages, but Cohen said he plans to seek “extensive” compensation for the suffering experienced by Tanya and her family, as well as a “substantial punitive damage judgment to punish Anglin and to send a message to other likeminded people.”

“Cyberhate in our country is a growing problem and it’s incredibly ugly,” he said. “We hope to change that.”

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