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Federal Judge Awards Jewish Woman $14 Million In Case Against Neo-Nazi Trolls


We have an update now to a story that we brought you in January of last year from Whitefish, Mont. That's where neo-Nazi trolls started threatening a Jewish woman, a realtor. The local rabbi's named Francine Roston, and here's what she told NPR back then.


FRANCINE ROSTON: The messages were very frequently Holocaust-themed. We're going to destroy you. Your people should've been destroyed. You should destroy yourself. You should go jump in an oven. We're going to come cremate you.

SHAPIRO: Now a federal judge has ordered the founder of a neo-Nazi blog to pay the woman $14 million in damages. NPR's Kirk Siegler has been covering this story and is following the new ruling. Hi there.


SHAPIRO: This case first brought into the mainstream the concept of troll storming, which is a popular tactic used by extremists online. Give us a refresher of what it involved.

SIEGLER: Well, the troll storm in question here, Ari, was unleashed by Andrew Anglin. He's the founder of a racist website called The Daily Stormer, which bills itself as a news site. And he ordered his followers to target a Whitefish, Mont., woman by the name of Tanya Gersh. She's a realtor. She's also Jewish.

And he instructed them to harass her, basically publish all of her personal information online. That's a tactic called doxing. They sent her anti-Semitic memes, racist Holocaust-denying emails, among other things.

SHAPIRO: And it wasn't just, like, images and words. There were serious threats against her and her family.

SIEGLER: Exactly. There were death threats, calls to her home - repeated calls to her home that Miss Gersh says continues today. She was terrified. They also targeted anyone else in the town, as we heard there from the rabbi in Whitefish. They harassed and scared a couple that - one of them was a former rabbi I also interviewed with, and anyone who sounded - who had a name who sounded Jewish or supported Tanya Gersh.

And the judge decided this crossed the line from free speech to an outright threat to one's personal safety.

SHAPIRO: What's the reaction been from Gersh and her legal team?

SIEGLER: They're excited. Gersh's lawyer is a prominent Montana attorney and former Democratic leader, John Morrison. He's working on behalf of the Southern Poverty Law Center. And he told Montana Public Radio that this ruling has broad implications.


JOHN MORRISON: It also sends a message across the country and around the world that this kind of hateful harassment will not be tolerated.

SHAPIRO: Explain why all of these neo-Nazi followers of The Daily Stormer targeted Gersh in particular.

SIEGLER: Well, the backstory here, Ari, is sort of this tangle of prominent - and now I'd say not-so-prominent - figures in the white nationalist movement. This all started when Tanya Gersh apparently had an argument with a woman named Sherry Spencer over a real estate transaction. And Sherry is the mother of white nationalist Richard Spencer, who, you'll recall, a prominent supporter of Trump and doing the hail Trump salute at an event, during the inauguration.

And the Spencers live in Whitefish. And Whitefish itself is a picturesque resort town. It leans liberal, and folks there were very wary of having their town associated with Spencer and hate, as you might imagine. So when this disagreement, or apparent disagreement, between Gersh and Richard Spencer's mom ended up becoming public, it made the local news, and that caught the eye of Andrew Anglin and his followers, who then targeted Gersh.

SHAPIRO: So there's been this preliminary ruling that Anglin must pay $14 million. I know there's some question as to whether that money will ever actually be paid. What are the implications of this for the neo-Nazi, white nationalist movement and websites like The Daily Stormer more broadly?

SIEGLER: I think one of the main implications may be symbolic, if legal as well, that this kind of hate speech will not be tolerated online and there are real legal ramifications from it.

The interesting thing is no one knows exactly for sure where Anglin is. There's speculation he's out of the country. I noticed today he's posting articles under his byline on The Daily Stormer. But he refused to show up for court appearances. It's not clear whether he'll ever pay this money, but we'll have to see how this plays out.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Kirk Siegler, thanks a lot.

SIEGLER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.