MISSOULA - The Southern Poverty Law Center filed a lawsuit Tuesday against the publisher and founder of a neo-Nazi website that called for the harassment of a Jewish woman and her family in Whitefish.
Filed in the U.S. District Court of Montana in Missoula against Andrew Anglin, publisher of The Daily Stormer, the lawsuit alleges the defendant fomented a barrage of crude, hateful and anti-Semitic voicemails, social media comments, emails and letters, including Christmas cards, against Tanya Gersh, her husband, and 12-year-old son.
"Hickory dickory dock, the kike ran up the clock. The clock struck three and Internet Nazi trolls gassed the rest of them," read one comment Gersh received on social media, according to the complaint; the user also posted "an altered image of Ms. Gersh being sprayed with a cloud of green gas."
The onslaught of attacks incited by Anglin invaded Gersh's privacy, inflicted emotional distress, violated Montana's Anti-Intimidation Act, and constitutes actual malice, the complaint said.
Anglin called for a "troll storm" against Gersh – and included her and her family's contact information – in a December 2016 story in which he accused her of trying to extort money from Richard Spencer's mother. Richard Spencer is a national leader of a movement that mixes racism, white nationalism, and populism; based part-time in Whitefish, he runs an organization dedicated to the "future of people of European descent."
Gersh, also represented by Montana lawyer John Morrison, alleges in the complaint she has experienced "severe emotional and physical distress" as a result of the troll storm. Instead of ice skating and skiing, she goes to trauma therapy, according to the court document.
"This attack has been one long nightmare that has changed me forever in so many ways," Gersh said in a statement provided in the Southern Poverty Law Center's news release. "No one should endure what I've experienced. And with the love and support of my family and others, we will take a stand against hate."
Based in Ohio, Anglin did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment. He earlier called for – and then postponed – an armed march in Whitefish on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
The complaint outlines the political climate in Whitefish and interaction between Gersh and Sherry Spencer, Richard Spencer's mother, that preceded the stories on The Daily Stormer. The Daily Stormer has a tab called "The Jewish Problem" and it posts a picture of Pepe the Frog, sometimes associated with racism, drawn with swastikas in its eyes.
According to the complaint, some residents of Whitefish had been growing discontented with the Spencer family. It said their displeasure "reached a fever pitch" after a video was released showing Richard Spencer "spouting racist rhetoric and declaring, 'Hail Trump! Hail our people! Hail victory!' at a gathering of white nationalists giving Nazi salutes" after November's election of Donald Trump as president.
Some members of the community believed that Sherry Spencer was financially supporting her son, and they considered protesting in front of a commercial building she owns downtown, the complaint said. Some community members contacted Gersh, one of the few Jewish residents of Whitefish, and a tenant of the mixed-use building asked Gersh to reach out to Sherry Spencer, the lawsuit said.
"Ms. Gersh declined at first, then reluctantly agreed to consider accepting a call from Ms. Spencer, thinking it unlikely that Ms. Spencer would actually call.
"But Ms. Spencer did in fact place a call to Ms. Gersh. Ms. Spencer asked, 'What should I do? What would you do?' and expressed concerned over the turmoil her building had caused in the community.
"When Ms. Spencer lamented the trouble her building was causing, Ms. Gersh wondered aloud why Ms. Spencer was keeping it and said that if she were in Ms. Spencer's situation, she would sell the building, make a donation, and issue a statement disavowing her son's views.
"Ms. Spencer took these ideas and ran with them, imploring Ms. Gersh to serve as her real estate agent for the sale. Ms. Gersh agreed."
The complaint said Gersh felt relieved at being able to avert the conflict in her community and even called the president of her realty company to ask permission to offer Spencer a reduced commission. The president agreed, and Gersh made plans to donate her portion of the commission, and she relayed the information to Sherry Spencer in an email, the lawsuit said.
Over the Thanksgiving holiday, though, Sherry Spencer appeared to change her mind, the complaint said. She emailed Gersh and asked to sell on her own. Gersh agreed and sent contact information for other real estate agents, the complaint said; those emails were their last communication.
A couple of weeks later, Sherry Spencer published a post on the website Medium accusing Gersh of threatening to extort her and force her to sell her building, donate money, and denounce her son's views, the complaint said. The lawsuit said the post appears to have been written by Richard Spencer, who quoted from it in an interview.
"The day after Ms. Spencer's Medium post, Mr. Anglin began posting articles on The Daily Stormer parroting Ms. Spencer's allegations against Ms. Gersh and calling for a troll storm against her," said the court document. Anglin wrote, "Let's Hit Em Up. Are y'all ready for an old fashioned Troll Storm?"
The Daily Stormer's followers responded with a “tsunami of threats” via email, social media and voicemail, the complaint said:
"Thanks for demonstrating why your race needs to be collectively ovened," said one threat.
"You will be driven to the brink of suicide & We will be there to take pleasure in your pain & eventual end," said another.
But the complaint said the language didn't bother Gersh as much as other messages: "The calls that most disturbed Ms. Gersh consisted only of the sound of guns being fired."
Anglin also "urged his followers to seek Ms. Gersh out in person: 'And hey – if you're in the area, maybe you should stop by and tell her in person what you think of her actions.'"
Anglin has since published 30 stories similar to the first, and most of them "urge his readers to continue their harassment of Ms. Gersh and her family and associates,” the lawsuit said. He has called Jews "a vicious diseased race of evil monsters" and "a terrorist group."
The publisher also has targeted Gersh’s husband and son, calling the boy a “scamming little kike” and “creepy little faggot.” “A Twitter user with the handle ‘Kaiser Wilhelm II,’ the name of an anti-Semitic German emperor, tagged Ms. Gersh’s son in a tweet that read, ‘psst, kid, theres a free Xbox One inside this oven.’ The tweet included a photograph of an oven.”
Another image titled "Daily Stormer Presents" shows pictures of Gersh, her child, and two other Whitefish residents who also are Jewish superimposed on a picture of the Aushwitz concentration camp; the complaint includes the image. Anglin also posted a threatening image of an armored soldier with shield depicting a crossed-out star of David; the soldier pulls the tongue of a monster and the image was captioned, "Be a White Warrior and Help Smite the Parasite."
As a result of Anglin's provocations and the ensuing harassment, Gersh's physical appearance has changed with weight gain and hair loss, the complaint said. For the first time, it said, her doctor as prescribed antidepressants, Valium, and acupuncture.
"Before the attack, she went ice skating three times a week, worked out almost daily, and went skiing on weekends," said the court document. "Since the attack, physical pain in her shoulders and hips stemming from the extreme distress she has experienced has prevented her from doing any of these things.
"Ms Gersh has developed Bursitis from carrying herself differently – she has begun compulsively rounding her shoulders in a subconscious effort to defend herself from attack."
The Southern Poverty Law Center has designated The Daily Stormer and its 31 physical chapters in the United States and Canada a hate group, according to a news release from the organization. The website "takes its name from the Nazi propaganda sheet known as Der Stürmer."
"Some of its readers do more than issue threats," the news release said. It said Dylann Roof, convicted of killing nine African-Americans in Charleston in 2015, posted on the site, and James Jackson, a reader, was charged with murder and terrorism after allegedly planning to kill a black man at random in New York City. Jackson has pleaded not guilty to fatally stabbing Timothy Caughman.
The news release said the lawsuit filed against Anglin and his website is similar to other ones the Southern Poverty Law Center has won against 10 white supremacist organizations and 50 individuals "who led them or participated in violent acts."
The legal strategy is adapted for the digital age, according to the news release. In it, Southern Poverty Law Center President Richard Cohen and Montana lawyer John Morrison, former state auditor, commented on the way the defendant used his website to intimidate.
"There's no place in Montana for the hate Andrew Anglin unleashed from the darkest corners of the internet," said Morrison, with Morrison, Sherwood, Wilson & Deola in a statement. "The attack on Tanya Gersh was an attack on all of us."
Said Cohen in a statement: "Andrew Anglin knew he had an online army primed to attack with the click of a mouse. We intend to hold him accountable for the suffering he has caused Ms. Gersh and to send a strong message to those who use their online platforms as weapons of intimidation."
The complaint asks for damages, including general damages, compensatory damages, and punitive damages, "all in amounts to be determined at trial," as well as attorney fees "to the extent permitted by law." It notes the amount in controversy "exceeds $75,000."