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Neo-Nazi troll storm was crude but not a threat, white supremacist argues

The founder of a popular neo-Nazi website who encouraged his readers to launch an avalanche of hate toward a Jewish woman says the victim could simply have ignored the phone calls, texts and social media messages.

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Mallory Simon (CNN)
(CNN) — The founder of a popular neo-Nazi website who encouraged his readers to launch an avalanche of hate toward a Jewish woman says the victim could simply have ignored the phone calls, texts and social media messages.

Andrew Anglin made the arguments in court documents submitted by his lawyers in response to a lawsuit that seeks to hold him liable after using his website to encourage his thousands of readers to contact Tanya Gersh. Most of the messages contained hate-filled language and centered on the fact that Gersh is Jewish.

Anglin wrote that it shouldn't matter what Gersh thought of the words sent to her after his article in the Daily Stormer, as, he claims, it was all free speech protected by the First Amendment.

Gersh, with the help of the Southern Poverty Law Center, is suing Anglin for "invasion of privacy, intentional infliction of emotional distress and violations of Montana's Anti-Intimidation Act." That suit was filed in April in the US District Court for Montana. Anglin and his legal team are asking for the lawsuit to be dismissed, largely because of the First Amendment.

"[Gersh] clearly would prefer not to hear the words of Mr. Anglin and his alleged readers, but liberty demands that they remain free to speak them," according to Anglin's latest legal argument filed with the court.

Gersh said she received a voice mail with the sound of gunshots. There were letters sent to the home she shared with her husband and young son, who also received messages on social media. Gersh earlier this year told CNN she was haunted and threatened by the images, and feared for her and her family's life so much that they debated fleeing the state because the threats felt so real.

"The response may have been voluminous and crude, but defendant is not liable for the speech of his readers," Anglin's motion reads.

It started with a small-town dispute

The troll storm began after a dispute between Gersh and fellow Whitefish, Montana, resident Sherry Spencer. Spencer is the mother of white nationalist Richard Spencer.

Gersh became a target for hate after contacting tenants of a building owned by Sherry Spencer, warning them about possible protests over her son's views.

When Sherry Spencer called to ask her advice, Gersh said, she advised her to sell the building and donate money to a human rights group as a way to defuse tensions. Gersh said she offered to help Spencer sell the property.

Sherry Spencer eventually accused Gersh in a public blog post of threatening her livelihood.

She wrote that Gersh told her protesters and media would turn up and drive down the building's value if she didn't sell.

That is where Anglin came in. He began writing about the case on the Daily Stormer, calling what Gersh did "extortion." He encouraged his troll army to tell Gersh what they thought of her and on his website he posted her personal information and ways to reach her. His supporters did so by the hundreds.

One way Anglin defends himself is to say Gersh could have simply not checked her phone to avoid messages or social media.

"Social media, email, and telephone messages are not directed to a home --- they are directed to distant cloud computer servers to which the individual must affirmatively reach out to acquire. Unlike mail, delivered by the government daily to the home, plaintiff need not reach out and check her electronic and telephonic messages, from home or elsewhere," the response reads.

Another angle of the defense is to deny the Holocaust -- a baseless claim that often appears on the Daily Stormer to infuriate Jews and rally Anglin's supporters.

In his legal response, Anglin demands the court take his mindset into consideration when looking at the intent of the imagery created of Gersh, and those sent to her. Some of those images included pictures of Gersh and her son's faces manipulated to appear to be on the gates of a Nazi concentration camp.

"In defendant's mindset, there are no gas chambers; there are no ovens; there are no mass killings of Jews," Anglin and his lawyers argue in the court document. "To the speaker, these are fictional metaphors, a 'threat' as true as a 'Star Wars' fanatic sending Death Star-blowing-up -- Vulcan imagery to a 'Star Trek' fan. It may be hateful, but it is no true threat."

In response to Anglin's brief, Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt called Anglin's mindset "one of Holocaust denial and pernicious anti-Semitic conspiracy theories." Greenblatt argued that defense shouldn't be allowed.

"Under the law, Anglin should not be able to hide behind coded language and keyboards, tearing a person's life apart because of their race or religion and then be able to claim that his speech was protected because of his own mindset."

CNN asked Anglin's attorney Marc Randazza about the claim of the Holocaust denial as a defense.

"It doesn't matter that this guy denies the Holocaust happened, it doesn't matter that he's a bigot. In fact, it matters more," Randazza said. "There is no greater way than to preach your love for the First Amendment then to take on a case from someone whose speech you abhor."

Anglin: Messages more insults than violent threats

Anglin says other statements made toward Gersh are not threats that imply violence. He explains that one comment, telling Gersh a "goylash" was coming, is merely self-referential. The term goy means a non-Jew, and the phrase goylash is often used by the alt-right when calling for a backlash by non-Jews against Jews.

He says that statements that people were going to find Gersh or ruin her did not imply violence. They simply stated that people could find her through public means, and threats could be financial.

"There is nothing violent about looking to see what a person does in public, and it was only publicly available information that had been presented about plaintiff," Anglin argues.

Anglin also defends himself against a charge of intimidation under the Montana Anti-Intimidation Act by claiming the law itself is over broad. But even if it weren't, "Nothing in the alleged threats cited ... suggests anything other than hyperbolic insult."

Greenblat, the Anti-Defamation League CEO, said he sees it differently.

"Anglin has the First Amendment right to post a wide range of hateful and false ramblings online, but we all have a right to be free from what any reasonable person would understand to be a true threat," Greenblatt told CNN. "It is crucial that the courts keep up with the technology and the state of hate today."

Anglin also argues the court has no jurisdiction in this case, because he was not living in the United States during the time of the alleged threats. Anglin submitted voter registration records in which he asks that mail be forwarded to Krasnodar Krai, in Southern Russia. Anglin checked a box that said he did not know when he was going to return.

He maintains in court documents he continues to live abroad, and therefore, the lawsuit should be thrown out.

In the legal document, Anglin and his team wrote: "Like Samuel Adams, Mr. Anglin behooved his readers to adhere to the law and keep within its bounds."

In the request for dismissal, Anglin calls the lawsuit "an affront to the First Amendment."

The SPLC said its attorneys are reviewing the motion.

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