A neo-Nazi website's publisher could be held legally liable for the conduct of readers who carried out an anti-Semitic "troll storm" against a Montana real estate agent's family, a federal magistrate judge said in a court filing Thursday.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Jeremiah Lynch recommends allowing Tanya Gersh to proceed with her lawsuit's claims against The Daily Stormer publisher Andrew Anglin.
Anglin's lawyers argue he has a constitutional right to express his "political speech" about Gersh and isn't liable for his readers' words or actions. But the magistrate said it isn't clear that Gersh's claims against Anglin are "barred as a matter of law" by the First Amendment.
Lynch's recommendation isn't the final word on Anglin's request to dismiss Gersh's case. Marc Randazza, one of Anglin's attorneys, said they "respectfully disagree" with the magistrate's conclusions and will ask a district court judge to review them.
"If this decision stands, then people should remember that the same rule you laid out for the Nazi also applies to the civil rights activist tomorrow," he said.
Gersh claims anonymous internet trolls bombarded her family with hateful and threatening messages after Anglin published their personal information, including her 12-year-old son's Twitter handle and photo.
In a string of posts that started in December 2016, Anglin accused Gersh and other Jewish residents of Whitefish, Montana, of engaging in an "extortion racket" against the mother of white nationalist Richard Spencer. One of Anglin's articles about Gersh urged readers to "take action" against her and other Jewish residents of Whitefish.
Gersh says she had agreed to help Spencer's mother sell commercial property she owns in Whitefish amid talk of a protest outside the building. Sherry Spencer, however, later accused Gersh of threatening and harassing her into agreeing to sell the property.
The magistrate said Gersh has "sufficiently alleged that Anglin authorized, directed, or ratified the tortious conduct of his readers."
"Whether the facts as alleged will ultimately provide a basis for holding Anglin liable once the record is fully developed remains to be seen," the magistrate wrote Thursday. "But for present purposes, Gersh has sufficiently alleged facts in support of a cognizable legal theory by which Anglin could be held liable for the allegedly tortious conduct of his readers."
Gersh's attorneys from the Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center argue the First Amendment doesn't protect Anglin's "coordinated, online attack" on her family.
David Dinielli, deputy legal director for the law center, said the magistrate's decision is "eminently sensible."
"What kind of a world would it be if people could terrorize others with impunity?" he said in a statement.
Lynch heard arguments last month from attorneys for Anglin and Gersh on whether the case must be dismissed on First Amendment grounds. On Thursday, the magistrate said Gersh has "adequately stated" claims that Anglin invaded her privacy, intentionally inflicted "emotional distress" and violated a Montana anti-intimidation law.
The magistrate previously concluded that Gersh's suit shouldn't be dismissed just because Anglin has been traveling outside the U.S. for several years. In an order he issued in March, Lynch said there's sufficient evidence that Anglin was legally "domiciled" in Ohio when Gersh sued him in April 2017. Anglin's lawyers argue the court lacks jurisdiction over the case — and therefore must dismiss it — because they claim Anglin is "not a citizen of any state."
Anglin's site takes its name from Der Stürmer, a newspaper that published Nazi propaganda in Nazi-era Germany, and includes sections called "Jewish Problem" and "Race War." The Daily Stormer has struggled to stay online over the past year. Domain name registration companies Google and GoDaddy yanked the site's web address, effectively making it unreachable, after Anglin published a post mocking the woman killed in a deadly car attack at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August.
Anglin also faces at least two other federal lawsuits over his online trolling campaigns. The first black woman to serve as American University's student government president sued Anglin in Washington on Monday, accusing him of orchestrating an online harassment campaign against her. Muslim-American radio host Dean Obeidallah sued Anglin in Ohio in August, saying Anglin falsely labeled him as the "mastermind" behind a deadly bombing at a concert in England.