Because the relatively small number of Jews in Whitefish, Montana were perceived to have done something wrong to white nationalist Richard Spencer and his mother in the winter of 2016, a Neo-Nazi web site called The Daily Stormer launched a massive "troll storm."
As I reported at the time, the resulting storm of vile threats upended life in Whitefish, and particularly affected the life of a Jewish woman named Tanya Gersh, who had been singled out for hundreds of exceedingly harsh attacks that included death threats against her family. Soon the Southern Poverty Law Center had filed suit against the operator of The Daily Stormer on Gersh's behalf, beginning a long court battle that continues to this day. The site's operator, Andrew Anglin, who'd urged the troll storm into existence, claimed the lawsuit should be tossed out on First Amendment grounds.
But this week a federal judge ruled that the First Amendment doesn't give Neo-Nazis a right to harass people in this manner.
As The New York Times reports:
In his ruling denying a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, Dana L. Christensen, the chief judge for United States District Court in Missoula, Mont., wrote that the real estate agent, Tanya Gersh, was a private citizen, not a public figure, and that the publisher, Andrew Anglin, incited his followers to harass her as part of a personal campaign.
There are unique aspects to this particular case of online harassment, but even so the judge's ruling could have important implications given how prevalent the problem of online harassment, both organized and disorganized, has become.
An attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center told the Times that the 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.”
Anglin's lawyer, for his part, warned that the judge's opinion could boomerang in unexpected ways.
"That ruling, if it stands, is not going to be good for anyone who engages in common outrage culture," he told the Times. "Maybe that’s a good thing, but I think not.”