In a case that tested the limits of free speech, an all-white jury in Chicago on Wednesday found the ever-garrulous imprisoned neo-Nazi leader Bill White guilty of using his website to encourage violence against the foreman of a jury that convicted a fellow white supremacist.
Federal prosecutors in the case said White threatened Mark Hoffman, the jury foreman in the trial of white supremacist Matthew Hale, who was convicted in 2004 of soliciting the murder of a federal judge. Years after the trial, White listed personal and contact information about the juror on his website and wrote that he “played a leading role in inciting both the conviction and the harsh sentence that followed,” although he did not directly propose violence against him. The jury today found that even though he didn’t call for a specific attack on “Hale juror A,” that didn’t matter in the context of other postings on the site.
A judge in 2009 had dismissed the charge against White, saying he broke no laws because the information he posted was publicly available. But the Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that decision, finding that a jury should hear the case.
White’s defense was framed around his First Amendment rights. “This was not a solicitation, and it was protected by the First Amendment,” attorney Nishay Sanan argued in comments to The Roanoke Times. The American Civil Liberties Union agreed. Its Virginia chapter filed an amicus brief noting that the First Amendment distinguishes between protected free speech and what is known in case law as a “true threat” — a threat that a reasonable third party would take seriously. But the jury today found that White’s actions did constitute a true threat.
Hoffman’s photo was posted on White’s Overthrow.com site next to his address, telephone number and other personal information, including his sexual orientation. White’s posting called him a “gay, Jewish anti-racist.” Hoffman, a former associate dean at Northwestern University, was never directly threatened with physical violence, but he told The Sun-Times in Chicago he had received ominous telephone calls afterward asking about his association with the Hale trial. He also got text messages that read, “sodomize Obama” and “cremate jews [sic].”
In an unusual move that suggests jurors in such cases may face real danger, U.S. District Judge Lynn Adelman last month issued an order forbidding the release of the jurors’ names to the public or even the attorneys involved — “an extreme measure that is warranted only where there is strong reason to believe the jury needs protection,” as Adelman wrote. Before returning with a verdict on Wednesday, jurors wrote a note asking if the courtroom could be cleared of visitors and whether they could use an alternate exit from the courthouse. Adelman denied the first of those requests.
White is about to finish a two-and-a-half year sentence for racially charged threats against other perceived enemies. He also faces a punitive settlement of $545,000 in a separate discrimination lawsuit – a burden almost guaranteed to deliver a crushing blow to his once-lucrative Virginia real estate empire.
Before his 2008 arrest, White led the American National Socialist Workers Party, a large neo-Nazi group based in his home town of Roanoke that collapsed in ensuing months. Before it was taken down after the arrest, Overthrow.com was a tremendously popular racist Internet site. White, a one-time left-wing anarchist, used it as a sounding board, posting links in the early days to such things as the Green Panthers, an Ohio pro-marijuana group that wanted to create a “stoner homeland,” before moving radically to the right and adopting neo-Nazi views.