The founder and editor of the neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer should be forced to pay more than $14m (£11.2m) to a Jewish woman targeted by a “troll storm” of abusive messages for months on end, a judge has said.
The US magistrate called the campaign, launched by the website’s publisher Andrew Anglin, as “egregious and reprehensible” with Tanya Gersh, her husband and her 12-year-old son being flooded with vile phone calls, text messages, emails and social media posts that included death threats and antisemitic slurs.
Ms Gersh, from Whitefish, Montana, said that she was told she should have perished in the Holocaust and that voicemails she received contained the sounds of guns firing again and again. The mother was left suffering from panic attacks that left her short of breath and vomiting.
“I was frightened to the point that we couldn’t think straight,” Ms Gersh – a real estate agent – said after a recent court hearing. “We talked about waking our children in the middle of the night — to run from Nazis.”
The abuse began in December 2016 after The Daily Stormer published, under Mr Anglin’s byline, a call to arms to readers. “Are y’all ready for an old fashioned Troll Storm?” the post said. “Because AYO — it’s that time, fam.”
Ms Gersh’s contact details were posted online and followers were urged to “tell them you are sicked by the Jewish agenda”. There were also photographs of Ms Gersh and her son, photoshopped against an image of the Auschwitz concentration camp. The Daily Stormer claimed the posts were protected by free speech laws.
Judge Jeremiah Lynch said that Mr Anglin had “acted with actual malice” in posting the contact details.
The source of the abuse followed accusations from Mr Anglin and others that Ms Gersh had tried to extort the mother of prominent white nationalist Richard Spencer. Spencer has been widely denounced for telling supporters to “party like its 1933” – the year Adolf Hitler came to power – after the election of Donald Trump. Mr Spencer was also a featured speaker at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a civil rights activist was killed and 19 other people were injured in August 2017.
Sherry Spencer, who owned a commercial property in Ms Gersh’s town of Whitefish, had faced scrutiny over her son’s extreme views and residents had discussed protesting outside the building.
According to her lawsuit, Ms Gersh said that Ms Spencer had phoned her for advice after Ms Gersh had contacted friends in the building to tell them protests may be coming.
Ms Gersh suggested that Ms Spencer sell the building and disavow her son’s views, with the lawsuit saying Ms Spencer had appeared receptive, but that changed.
More than 30 articles naming Ms Gersh were then said to have appeared on The Daily Caller, according to the lawsuit filed on her behalf by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). The suit claims that Ms Gersh and her family received more than 700 hate-filled messages.
With Mr Anglin having not appeared at a deposition in April, Judge Lynch recommended a default judgement against the publisher – but he went further. He recommended that Mr Anglin, who is in his mid-30s, be ordered to pay $4,042,438 in compensatory damages and $10 million, the maximum under Montana state law, in punitive damages for “the particularly egregious and reprehensible nature of Anglin’s conduct.”
Judge Lynch's findings and recommendations must be approved by US District Judge Dana Christensen to take effect.
Ms Gersh said that she may not receive the money, but Monday’s judgement has sent a message to others.
“A clear message has been sent to Anglin and other extremists: No one should be terrorised for simply being who they are, and no one should ever be afraid for being who they are,” she said in a statement.
“This lawsuit has always been about stopping others from enduring the terror I continue to live through at the hands of a neo-Nazi and his followers, and I wanted to make sure that this never happens to anyone else,” she added.
Last month, Mr Anglin was ordered to pay $4.1 million after he failed to respond to a defamation lawsuit filed by the Muslim radio host and comedian Dean Obeidallah after The Daily Stormer falsely labelled him a terrorist.