Neo-Nazi site founder says 'troll storm' is protected speech, wants lawsuit dismissed

Story highlights

  • The founder of the Daily Stormer encouraged a "troll storm" against Tanya Gersh
  • Gersh, who is Jewish, says she and her family endured threats as a result

(CNN)The founder of a popular neo-Nazi website says a "troll storm" he encouraged against a Jewish woman in Montana should be considered protected speech and a lawsuit against him should be dismissed.

Lawyers for Andrew Anglin, the founder and publisher of the Daily Stormer, responded November 30 to a lawsuit filed by realtor Tanya Gersh, saying the dispute between him and Gersh boils down to the First Amendment.
Well-known First Amendment attorney Marc Randazza, who is representing Anglin, told CNN, "The only thing he (Anglin) did was call for people to speak, but people want to draw the line for speech they don't like."
    Gersh, with the help of the Southern Poverty Law Center, is suing Anglin for "invasion of privacy, intentional infliction of emotional distress and violations of Montana's Anti-Intimidation act." That suit was filed in April in the US District Court for Montana.
    She told CNN earlier this year that her family endured weeks of harassment leading to her physical and emotional deterioration because of Anglin's actions.
    Gersh says Anglin used his website as a platform to encourage his thousands of readers to contact her through email messages, social media, letters and phone calls. They all centered on two facts: She was Jewish. And Anglin accused her of extortion.
    She says there is one man to blame for what happened to her and her family: Andrew Anglin.

    Free speech or harassment?

    Most of the messages from his readers came in the form of anti-Semitic slurs. There were edited images of her face on the gates of the Nazi Auschwitz death camp. A voicemail with the sound of gunshots. There were letters sent to the home she shared with her husband and young son, who also received messages on social media.
    Gersh earlier this year told CNN she was haunted by the images, and feared for her and her family's life so much that they debated fleeing the state because the threats felt so real.
    Anglin's lawyers say those messages are considered "generally recognized anti-Semitic tropes," but they intend no true or actual harm, despite how Gersh may have felt about them.
    Gersh told CNN earlier this year she believed reducing the Daily Stormer readers to simply "trolls" minimizes the impact they had on her life.
    "These are not trolls. They are terrorists," she told CNN. "They are very harmful, they are very malicious and they are dangerous."
    That is not how the law sees it, Anglin's lawyers argue in their motion to dismiss the lawsuit.
    "Even Nazi expression, no matter the psychic harm on Jewish residents, is nonetheless protected speech," Anglin's lawyers wrote.
    Speech that may be abhorrent to some still constitutes free speech, his lawyers maintain.
    "Every word uttered by Mr. Anglin in this public dispute is protected by the First Amendment, no matter how many people find those views intolerable," Anglin's lawyers argue.
    The argument that Anglin's words and postings are protected as free speech is no surprise. Even Gersh's attorneys spoke to CNN about it as an expected defense. SPLC co-counsel John Morrison called it a flawed defense.
    "This is not free speech, this is nothing protected by the First Amendment, this is not the expression of political opinion," he told CNN earlier this year. "The purpose of this is to damage these people, the purpose of this is to cause them fear and emotional harm, and that's illegal."
    The small town of Whitefish, Montana.

    A small-town dispute

    It could have a major impact on the Daily Stormer website, which has since been kicked offline in various countries and confined to the dark web -- a layer of the internet accessible only through anonymizing networks -- since the deadly protests in Charlottesville, Virginia.
    On his website, Anglin said losing the case could shut down his website. He used that to encourage people to donate to his defense fund. Anglin said he was able to raise more than $150,000.
    While the case could have wide-reaching implications, it started out modestly, after an interaction between two mothers in the small town of Whitefish, Montana.
    This mixed-use property was at the center of the dispute between Sherry Spencer and Tanya Gersh.
    The troll storm began after a dispute between Gersh and fellow Whitefish resident Sherry Spencer. Spencer is the mother of white nationalist Richard Spencer.
    Gersh became a target for hate after contacting tenants of a building owned by Sherry Spencer, warning them about possible protests by a group over her son's views.
    When Sherry Spencer called to ask her advice, Gersh says, she advised her to sell the building and donate money to a human rights group as a way to defuse tensions. Gersh says she offered to help Spencer sell the property.
    Sherry Spencer eventually accused Gersh in a public blog post of threatening her livelihood.
    She wrote that Gersh told her protesters and media would turn up and drive down the building's value if she didn't sell.

    A troll storm and major court case

    That is where Anglin comes in. He began writing about the case on the Daily Stormer, calling what Gersh did "extortion." He encouraged his troll army to tell Gersh what they thought of her and posted her personal information and ways to reach her on his website. They did so by the hundreds.
    But Anglin's attorneys argue that he "specifically disclaims calling for threats or harassment," but rather that he called for "campaign of making our voices heard."
    Anglin's attorneys also argue he was doing something Gersh had already done to Sherry Spencer.
    "Ms. Gersh was involved with planning a boycott and protest of Mrs. Spencer's business. Thus, Ms. Gersh condones collective action to express a political opinion -- so long as that political opinion is one that she favors," Anglin's attorneys wrote in the case for dismissal.
    "In the face of that, there is no reason to foresee Ms. Gersh would not similarly condone others engaged in collective expression," they added.
    The Southern Poverty Law Center, on behalf of Gersh, told CNN its attorneys are reviewing the filing and will file a response.
    Anglin has long argued that all he is doing with his website is exercising his right to free speech.
    Court documents reveal he has still not been served because he couldn't be found. His attorneys said he may not even live in the United States and the case should be thrown out because of that, too.
    Ultimately, a judge in Montana will decide whether the case proceeds.
    But Randazza, the attorney for Anglin, told CNN that if the case does move forward, it will likely be in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals because it speaks to the very tenets of free speech.
    "This is the price of admission to a free society," Randazza told CNN. "Even if you find Mr. Anglin's views abhorrent."