A Montana real estate agent sued the founder of a neo-Nazi website on Tuesday, saying the publisher orchestrated an anti-Semitic “campaign of terror” that bombarded the woman and her family with hateful messages from anonymous internet trolls.
The barrage of emails, phone calls, texts and social media comments threatened and harassed Tanya Gersh and her family -- including her 12-year-old son -- with messages replete with slurs and Holocaust references, according to the federal lawsuit.
The trolling campaign started in December after Daily Stormer founder Andrew Anglin published the family’s personal information, including the 12-year-old’s Twitter handle and photo. In a string of posts, Anglin accused Gersh and other Jewish residents of Whitefish, Montana, of engaging in an “extortion racket” against the mother of white nationalist Richard Spencer.
Gersh’s lawsuit said she agreed to help Spencer’s mother sell commercial property she owns in Whitefish amid talk of a protest outside the building. Sherry Spencer, however, later accused Gersh of threatening and harassing her into agreeing to sell the property.
Gersh, 44, told The Associated Press that she has been so scared for her family’s safety that she packed a bag and left it on her bedroom floor for three months in case they decided to flee their home.
“I’ve never experienced that kind of fear in my life,” she said.
Gersh is represented by the Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups. Her suit accuses Anglin of invading her privacy, intentionally inflicting “emotional distress” and violating a Montana anti-intimidation law. The mother of two young sons said she suffers panic attacks, goes to bed in tears and wakes up crying. She also said her real estate business suffered because she had to take down her website and is too afraid to answer the phone.
Her suit, filed in Missoula, Montana, seeks unspecified damages against Anglin, who didn’t immediately respond to an email seeking comment.
Law center president Richard Cohen, one of Gersh’s attorneys, said the case could be a blueprint for fighting a digital strain of white supremacy. “In the old days, they would have burned a cross on Tanya’s front lawn. Now, in the digital age, they launch a troll storm,” Cohen said.
The Alabama-based law center filed a similar suit in 1998 against a white supremacist who threatened Bonnie Jouhari, a fair housing specialist in Pennsylvania. Jouhari fled with her daughter and moved to another state after her tormenter posted her address and photo on the internet and branded her a “race traitor” for her work.
But cases like these are very rare because many victims are too scared to sue or can’t afford a lawyer, said Danielle Citron, a University of Maryland law professor and author of the book “Hate Crimes in Cyberspace.”
“We don’t have a lot of precedent with provocateurs like Andrew Anglin,” Citron said.
Anglin uses a mailing address in Worthington, Ohio, for his website, which takes its name from Der Stürmer, a newspaper that published Nazi propaganda. The site includes sections called “Jewish Problem” and “Race War.”
The Daily Stormer’s trolling targets have included prominent journalists, a Jewish congressional candidate in California, a British Parliament member and Alex Jones, a radio host and conspiracy theorist whom Anglin derided as a “Zionist Millionaire.”
Anglin’s Dec. 16 article about Gersh urged readers to “take action” against her and other Jewish residents of Whitefish, posting their telephone numbers, email addresses and Twitter handles.
“And hey -- if you’re in the area, maybe you should stop by and tell her in person what you think of her actions,” he added.
Richard Spencer has popularized the term “alt-right” to describe a fringe movement loosely mixing racism, anti-Semitism, white nationalism and anti-immigration. Spencer and Anglin have appeared on a podcast together and are both leading figures in the alt-right movement.
After Donald Trump’s election, Spencer hosted a conference in Washington that ended with audience members mimicking Nazi salutes after Spencer shouted, “Hail Trump, hail our people, hail victory!”
According to the lawsuit, Whitefish residents’ “discontent with the Spencer family had been simmering for years and reached a fever pitch when the ‘Hail Trump’ video of Richard Spencer went viral.”
Gersh fears her lawsuit will stir up another round of threats, but she said she is suing because the campaign against her family went “far beyond harassment.” She and her husband, Judah, felt compelled to teach their sons about the Holocaust after the trolling started.
“Our dinner conversations at home now regularly include that they shouldn’t be in fear for being Jewish,” she said.