Legal Issues In the News

The Daily Stormer (ReBroadcast)

Sean Anderson

Sean Anderson University of Illinois College of Law

Will a proven strategy for fighting white supremacist groups work when it comes to the so-called alt-right and online attacks? A court case in Montana might help answer that question.

The case pits a woman named Tanya Gersh against Andrew Anglin, the publisher of a prominent alt-right website called the Daily Stormer. Gersh and her husband and son were subjected to a vicious campaign of anti-Semitic harassment and threats after Anglin repeatedly called for readers of his website to unleash a “Troll Storm” on the family. The dispute started after the mother of another alt-right leader accused Tanya Gersh of trying to extort money from her. Anglin published the Gershes’ telephone numbers, email addresses, and social media profiles, and urged readers to “tell them you are sickened by their Jew agenda.” He even encouraged supporters to visit the Gershes and deliver the message in person.

And Anglin’s readers made the “Troll Storm” happen, with phone calls, emails, and social media attacks. The messages presented a mind-numbing litany of anti-Semitic invective, and some of them threatened violence against the Gershes. Some of the harassers emulated Anglin’s practice of using Nazi imagery—for example, placing photos of Tanya Gersh and her son above an image of the concentration camp at Auschwitz. Others spoke of “ovening” the Gershes, along with all other Jewish people—yes, that’s “ovening,” as in murdering them in emulation of the Holocaust.

 Now, Gersh has sued Anglin in federal court in Montana, claiming that he intentionally caused her emotional distress, invaded her privacy, and violated a Montana anti-intimidation law. Gersh has the backing of the Southern Poverty Law Center, or SPLC. If that names sounds familiar, it’s probably because the SPLC has a long history of using lawsuits to attack and, often, bankrupt extremist leaders and groups.

To mention just a couple of examples, the SPLC helped win a $12.5 million judgment in 1990 against the leaders of a group called the White Aryan Resistance, after group members murdered an Ethiopian student, and a $2.5 million judgment in 2008 against the leader and other members of the Imperial Klans of America, in connection with the brutal beating of a Panamanian-American teenager. In many of the SPLC’s earlier cases, the legal judgments effectively led to the demise of the specific extremist organizations involved. In one memorable scene, the United Klans of America was forced to turn over its headquarters to the mother of a black man its members had murdered.

The suit by Tanya Gersh against Andrew Anglin is an Internet-era version of the same SPLC strategy. Unlike in the group’s signature cases, the damage in this case has—thankfully—stopped short of actual violence, although the threats and harassment have been bad enough. Just as in those earlier cases, a key hurdle will be drawing a sufficient legal connection between the threats and harassment, on one hand, and Anglin and the Daily Stormer, on the other. Even though Anglin has not formally responded to the suit—he appears to be hiding out in Nigeria these days—he has posted about the suit, and the gist of his response so far is that he was just expressing his opinion, and that he’s not responsible for what his readers do.

If Gersh and the SPLC can convince a jury otherwise, they could end up with a judgment against Anglin big enough to take him out of the alt-right website business. If that happens, then the SPLC’s old strategy will have made the transition to the Internet age.