MISSOULA, Mont. (CN) – The attorney for neo-Nazi web publisher Andrew Anglin said Tuesday that although he abhors the comments his client launched last year against a Jewish real estate agent in Montana, defending the ability to make such racist comments is a cornerstone of the U.S. Constitution.
Anglin, publisher of the Daily Stormer website, faces an intimidation and harassment lawsuit brought by Tanya Gersh, the Realtor from Whitefish, Montana. Marc Randazza, attorney for Anglin, said in oral arguments in U.S. District Court in Missoula, Montana, Tuesday that while Anglin’s comments were reprehensible, they are defensible as free speech.
“I’m not here on behalf of the principle that I like what my client has to say,” Randazza, a Las Vegas attorney, said. “I abhor what my client has to say.”
Gersh was the target of Anglin’s internet trolling attack last year that brought hundreds of phone calls, texts and email messages against her and her family. Anglin launched the attack after a business relationship between Gersh and Sherry Spencer, mother of white nationalist Richard Spencer, soured.
According to Gersh, Sherry Spencer contacted her about listing a property in Whitefish. But after Gersh told Spencer that she should donate a portion of the sale proceeds to a local anti-hate group, Gersh says, Spencer wrote about the exchange in an online blog post.
Anglin followed the next day with a call to action that resulted in a barrage of phone calls, texts and emails over two months. “Let’s hit ‘em up with an old-fashioned troll storm,” Anglin wrote on his website.
Tuesday’s hearing dealt with Randazza’s motion to dismiss the case for lack of jurisdiction, since Anglin supposedly lives overseas. However, much of the hearing focused on the definition of a public figure and how Anglin’s publication of hateful speech resulted in direct harm to the Gersh family.
Southern Poverty Law Center attorney David Dinielli and Montana attorney John Morrison represent Gersh.
Randazza argued that Gersh became a public figure the moment she accepted Sherry Spencer’s phone call, and the troll storm that ensued from Anglin’s encouragement was legitimate public discourse concerning a public figure.
“I am filled with emotional sympathy for Ms. Gersh,” Randazza told U.S. Magistrate Judge Jeremiah C. Lynch. “I have empathy for her.” Much of what Anglin did in his online campaign against Gersh, Randazz said, “is personally offensive to me.”
Randazza said the “swirl of public attention” around Sherry Spencer, Richard Spencer and their connection to Whitefish, a small resort town in Montana, enclosed Gersh in the public debate, making her a “limited purpose public figure” and therefore subject to public scrutiny and debate.
Judge Lynch questioned how Gersh answering a phone call from Sherry Spencer about a possible business relationship could have resulted in Gersh becoming a public figure.
“She did step into that arena,” Randazza said.
The spotlight was thrown on Whitefish when Richard Spencer, founder of the “alt-right” white nationalist movement and the National Policy Institute, threw a “hail Trump” salute during the 2016 federal election. He lives part-time in Whitefish.
Randazza said although Anglin encouraged his online followers to write, call, or personally visit Gersh in Whitefish and tell her what they think about her “Jew agenda,” Anglin did not make those attacks himself and is not liable for the actions of others.
“It has to be incitement of something tortious,” Randazza said.
If Anglin were to be found liable for inciting harassment against Gersh, or intimidating her directly through is online platform, “It would have a deeply chilling effect on political activism,” Randazza said. He added that any other area of civil discourse, however unpleasant, could be next.
“The rule you lay down for the Nazi you lay down for other civil rights activists,” Randazza said.
Dinielli of the Southern Poverty Law Center said Anglin knew exactly what he was doing, and knew what the outcome would be when he unleashed his troll storm on Gersh and her family.
Anglin, Dinielli said, “authorized, ratified and directed” his followers to harass Gersh. Anglin posted 30 articles and provided an online chat room for his white nationalists to assemble, Dinielli said.
Morrison, the Montana-based attorney representing Gersh, told Judge Lynch that the civil course of action he is pursuing under Montana’s anti-intimidation law is similar to anti-stalking statutes of the criminal code.
Even if Anglin did not directly harass or intimidate Gersh with the hundreds of phone calls, e-mails and text messages, Morrison said “a communication may be indirect but designed to provide an intended relay of that communication when the party knows what could happen.”
“Anglin knew what was going to happen when he issued his commands,” Morrison said. “He launched an army, a swarm of bees” against the Gersh family and was “directly culpable” for the results.
Randazza had filed to dismiss the case based on a lack of jurisdiction, since Anglin claims to live overseas. Lynch said in previous rulings Anglin has so far not proven he doesn’t live in Ohio, where he was registered to vote in the 2016 presidential election.
Lynch said he will rule on Anglin’s motion to dismiss “as soon as is practical.”