The founder of a neo-Nazi website who orchestrated a vicious online anti-Semitic harassment campaign against Whitefish resident Tanya Gersh and her family is being sued by Gersh.
A lawsuit was filed Tuesday in federal court by the Southern Poverty Law Center, along with Helena attorney John Morrison, who is co-counsel in the case.
The lawsuit describes how Andrew Anglin, founder and publisher of the Daily Stormer website, used his online forum to publish 30 articles urging his followers to launch a “troll storm” against Gersh, a real estate agent. Gersh, her husband, Judah, and their 12-year-old son have received more than 700 harassing messages since December. The Gershes, who are Jewish, have another son who was targeted to a lesser degree.
“Andrew Anglin knew he had an online army primed to attack with the click of a mouse,” Southern Poverty Law Center President Richard Cohen said. “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 intimidation began late last year after Anglin accused Gersh of attempting to extort money from Sherry Spencer, the mother of Richard Spencer, who heads a white nationalist organization called the National Policy Institute.
There were rumors that a building Sherry Spencer owned would be a target for protests around the time that a video of Richard Spencer’s speech to a white nationalist conference in Washington, D.C., went viral. In the video, taken days after the 2016 election, he declares, “Hail Trump! Hail our people! Hail victory!” as white nationalists respond with Nazi salutes.
Gersh was targeted after she agreed to help Sherry Spencer sell her commercial building. Sherry Spencer called Gersh on Dec. 1, 2016, asking “What do I do?” and “How should I handle this?” as rumors of protests at Spencer’s building circulated. When Spencer wanted to proceed independently with selling her building, Gersh responded, saying that was the right decision and empathizing with Spencer’s predicament.
Anglin launched the troll storm after Spencer apparently changed her mind and published an online blogpost accusing Gersh of threatening and harassing her into agreeing to sell the commercial building on Lupfer Avenue in Whitefish. According to the complaint, “on information and belief, the blog post was ghostwritten by Ms. Spencer’s son, Richard Spencer.”
Anglin and Richard Spencer are both prominent leaders of the “alt-right” movement that rallied white nationalists behind President Donald Trump’s campaign, the Southern Poverty Law Center noted in a press release.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Montana, Missoula Division, seeks compensatory and punitive damages for invasion of privacy, intentional infliction of emotional distress and malice. It also outlines how Anglin’s campaign violated the Montana Anti-Intimidation Act.
While the complaint doesn’t specify the exact amount of monetary compensation Gersh is seeking, Cohen told reporters during a press conference that they’re seeking a significant settlement.
“We intend to send a message through a very large damage award [that] there is no place in our country” for such harassment, Cohen said.
While the Southern Poverty Law Center has filed numerous lawsuits against hate groups, Cohen said this case is “a bit unique and unprecedented” in that it deals for the first time with digital context.
He further said the U.S. Supreme Court has made it clear in many cases that an assault can come from words alone.
“I don’t think there are any serious First Amendment questions here,” he added.
The Montana Human Rights Network issued a statement Tuesday, supporting the lawsuit and saying “when radical right-wing extremists like Andrew Anglin use bully tactics to threaten, intimidate and harass through vigilante actions there should be consequences.”
The lawsuit complaint, posted on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s website, describes the online attack in graphic detail.
“Tell them you are sickened by their Jew agenda,” Anglin wrote under the headline “Jews Targeting Richard Spencer’s Mother for Harassment and Extortion – TAKE ACTION!” The post included Gersh’s contact information. It also included photographs of Gersh, her husband and son. One was altered to include a yellow Star of David with the label “Jude” – an allusion to the emblem the Nazi regime required Jews to wear during World War II.
Anglin launched his campaign of harassment and intimidation with these words: “Let’s Hit Em Up. Are y’all ready for an old fashioned Troll Storm? Because AYO – it’s that time, fam.”
The article prompted hundreds of threatening telephone calls, voicemails, texts, emails, social media messages, letters and postcards.
Another email told Gersh she would be “driven to the brink of suicide and we will be there to take pleasure in your pain and eventual end.”
During a press conference Tuesday morning, Tanya Gersh wept as she described the harassment she and her family enduring during the anti-Semetic “troll storm” Anglin instigated, and said the harassment hasn’t completely stopped.
She described how she came home one day to find her husband sitting in the dark with suitcases packed in the next room.
“We thought we had to run for safety in the middle of the night,” she said, calling the online assault nothing less than terrorism. “What do we tell our children?
“Andrew Anglin and his troll army have attacked me at the core of who we are,” Gersh continued. “I desperately worry for my children … Our dinner conversations include ensuring them they don’t have to fear about being Jewish.”
Gersh said she has quit her real estate job, is undergoing trauma therapy and goes to bed crying most nights. She has developed medical issues from the harassment and said her hair has started falling out.
“I’ve never had anxiety issues before,” she said. “I know I’m not the first person Andrew Anglin has victimized.”
Gersh’s husband was forced to close his Whitefish law office for a time because of the disruption of the online attacks, but he is now back to work.
Gersh said the Flathead Valley Jewish community now had professional security at all of its events.
“It’s made our community very nervous,” she said, adding that the ordeal “has really brought us (the Jewish community) closer together. It makes you take a close look to what’s important in life.”
Anglin also attempted to instigate a march of white nationalists in downtown Whitefish, but the proposed march never materialized because he didn’t meet the requirements of the city’s permitting process for such an event.
Morrison, who has been friends with the Gershes for 20 years, lauded Tanya’s courage in suing Anglin.
“It’s a very brave thing Tanya is doing here, for her to now step up and willingly subject herself to more attention and more attacks,” Morrison said. “I’m very proud of her as a friend.”