When Andrew Anglin isn’t editing his neo-Nazi website the Daily Stormer, he organizes harassment campaigns against perceived enemies. One target of an Anglin harassment campaign, Tanya Gersh, sued Anglin last year. On Wednesday, a Montana federal judge dealt Anglin a significant setback, holding that the First Amendment does not protect Anglin’s right to publish Gersh’s personal information and encourage his legion of anti-Semitic followers to harass her.
But this legal battle isn’t over yet. The judge’s ruling allows the lawsuit to go forward, but Gersh’s lawyers will still have to prove Anglin liable for invasion of privacy and other harms.
Still, the ruling could prove significant for other victims of online harassment. Anglin argued that he was just publishing information—like Gersh’s home phone number—and couldn’t be held responsible for what his readers did with that information. But the judge pointed to clear evidence Anglin knew exactly what readers would do with the information and egged them on at every step.
That could give the targets of other online harassment campaigns a legal basis to file lawsuits of their own. It’s not the most effective remedy against online trolling—Gersh’s lawsuit has dragged on for 18 months and isn’t close to being finished. But it could provide a way to combat the most obnoxious online harassment campaigns.
Anglin ranted about Gersh’s “Jew agenda”
Anglin’s dispute with Gersh began in late 2016, after white nationalist Richard Spencer gained fame in the midst of the 2016 presidential campaign. Richard’s mother, Sherry Spencer, owned a commercial property in Whitefish, Montana, and some Whitefish residents suspected she might be supporting her son’s efforts financially. So Whitefish residents began planning to protest the mother and her commercial tenants.
Sherry Spencer got wind of these plans and talked to Gersh, who is a real-estate agent and one of the few Jewish residents of Whitefish, Montana, about having Gersh sell her property. But that never happened. Instead, the Spencers became convinced that Gersh’s offer to sell the property was part of an extortion attempt to use the threat of protests to force Spencer to sell her property for below-market rates. Anglin got wind of the situation and began writing about it on the Daily Stormer in December 2016.
“This is the Jews for you, people,” wrote Anglin. “They are a vicious, evil race of hate-filled psychopaths.”
Anglin asked his readers to launch an online and offline harassment campaign against Gersh. Anglin published the phone numbers, email accounts, and social media profiles of Tanya Gersh and members of her family—including her 12-year-old son.
“Tell them you are sickened by their Jew agenda,” Anglin wrote in a post on December 16, 2016.
According to Gersh’s complaint, Anglin’s posts “caused his followers to overwhelm Ms. Gersh with hundreds of hateful and threatening anti-Semitic phone calls, voicemails, text messages, emails, letters, social media comments, and false online business reviews.”
One person sent a photograph of Gersh “along with her 12-year-old son and two other members of the Whitefish Jewish community superimposed on a photograph of the Auschwitz concentration camp.”
With help from the Southern Poverty Law Center, Gersh sued Anglin. Anglin argued that the court lacked jurisdiction because he was now living abroad. But in March, a magistrate judge rejected that argument and allowed the lawsuit to go forward.
The judge rejects Anglin’s First Amendment arguments
Anglin’s next move was to argue that his posts doxing Gersh and urging his followers to harass her are speech protected by the First Amendment. But Judge Dana Christensen rejected that argument on Tuesday.
The First Amendment gives broad protection to speech about matters of public concern. Anglin argued that the principle applies here—that Gersh is a public figure and her dispute with Richard Spencer’s mother is a matter of public concern.
But the First Amendment has never enshrined a right to harassment and intimidation. And while Anglin’s posts were tangentially connected to Whitefish residents protesting Richard Spencer’s racist political views, it’s hard to see how publishing Gersh’s phone number and information about her underage son were relevant to that debate.
“A state may protect its residents from repeated unwanted telephone calls that are harassing due to their sheer number and frequency,” Christensen wrote. “It hardly makes sense to conclude—as Anglin contends—that Anglin’s posts and sponsored troll storm are entitled to additional protection because of their anti-Semitic content.”
Judge Christensen’s ruling doesn’t end the case. On Tuesday, he rejected Anglin’s motion to dismiss, allowing the case to move forward. Gersh is suing Anglin for invasion of privacy, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and violation of Montana’s Anti-Intimidation Act. Her lawyers will still need to prove that Anglin’s actions ran afoul of these laws.