The case against a Neo-Nazi publisher can proceed to trial on accusations he called for a "troll storm" against a Jewish woman, a federal judge ruled.
Claims by Daily Stormer founder Andrew Anglin that the First Amendment protected his speech were not enough to dismiss the case at this point, the judge said.
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The lawsuit seeks to hold Anglin liable for using his website to encourage his thousands of readers to contact Tanya Gersh, a Realtor in Montana. Most of the messages contained hate-filled, anti-Semitic language.
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 2017 in the US District Court for Montana.
Anglin's call for dismissal was rejected first by US Magistrate Judge Jeremiah C. Lynch and that decision is now supported by Dana L. Christensen, chief judge of the US District Court in Missoula.
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 over Richard Spencer's views.
Anglin wrote about the case on the Daily Stormer, accusing Gersh of "extortion." He encouraged his "troll army" of readers to tell Gersh what they thought of her and posted her personal information and ways to reach her.
Gersh and her family were then contacted hundreds of times. She was sent images with her face on the gates of the Nazi Auschwitz death camp. There was 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.
Lynch ruled against Anglin earlier this year when Anglin argued he wasn't responsible for the messages from readers of his site, that Gersh should be considered a public figure, and that, in the end, the speech was protected by the First Amendment. Anglin objected to the ruling, sending the case for review.
Judge Christensen's ruling this week puts the case closer to a civil trial.
"The Court has thoroughly considered his free speech arguments and finds that a decision for Anglin at this stage would, at minimum, be premature," Christensen wrote.
Prominent First Amendment attorney Marc Randazza, who is representing Anglin, told CNN it was important to note "this is just the motion to dismiss phase."
"What the judge did was hold that, if everything that the plaintiff claims is true is actually supported by evidence, then they could win," Randazza told CNN. " This does not mean that the First Amendment is no longer in effect."
Among the issues was whether the dispute between Anglin and Gersh was essentially a private conflict, but also whether Anglin could be held responsible for the actions of his readers.
"The harm alleged by Gersh is precisely the type of harm not only anticipated but requested by Anglin in his Daily Stormer posts," Christensen wrote.
Randazza, Anglin's attorney, argued the ruling in this case could have widespread impact on free speech and that it is not about whether you agree with Anglin's views, but whether he should be able to express them.
"The rule we lay down for the Nazi applies equally to the civil rights activist and, in fact, to all of us," Randazza told CNN. "And that ruling, if it stands, is not going to be good for anyone who engages in common outrage culture. Maybe that's a good thing, but I think not."
The Southern Poverty Law Center and its lawyer, David Dinielli, who is representing Gersh, celebrated the ruling as a win.
"Today's ruling underscores what both we and our client have said from the beginning of this case -- that online campaigns of hate, threats, and intimidation have no place in a civil society, and enjoy no protection under our Constitution," Dinielli said in a statement.
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