Neo-Nazi Bill White spent years pushing the limits of the First Amendment. Last week, thanks to a ruling by a federal appeals court, the First Amendment pushed back.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit on Friday reinstated White’s 2011 conviction for soliciting violence against a jury foreman who helped convict another white supremacist in Chicago, The Roanoke (Va.) Times reported over the weekend. White, an infamous white supremacist and former anarchist who once led a group called the American National Socialist Workers Party, now faces up to 10 years in prison when he is sentenced on a date that has yet to be set.
It was a particularly bad moment for White. Just three days earlier, another court had added three months to a two-and-a-half-year sentence White had recently completed for, among other things, sending a threatening letter to black tenants in Virginia who had filed a discrimination lawsuit against their landlord. The time was added because at least one tenant was a child, causing an appeals court to rule that White should have received an enhanced sentence. The three months were added by a lower court in response to the appeals court’s decision.
Earlier this year, before his re-sentencing on that case, White fled to Mexico. But he was arrested there within a month and sent back to the United States, where he was handed an additional 10 months for violating his parole by fleeing.
Friday’s ruling, however, was the most important development in the legal saga of Bill White — both because of what it said about the limits of the First Amendment and because it could result in White spending another decade in federal prison.
The case was based on a 2008 posting White made on his now-defunct website, Overthrow.com, that harshly criticized a juror in the 2004 conviction of Matt Hale, the leader of the neo-Nazi World Church of the Creator, for soliciting the murder of a federal judge. In the posting, headed “The Juror Who Convicted Matt Hale,” White described the juror as a gay Jew with a black lover and included detailed contact information for the man. He did not specifically call for violence against him, but said the man “played a leading role in inciting both the conviction and the harsh sentence that followed.” White went on to describe the conviction as wrongful and said Hale received a “criminally long sentence.”
White, who had earlier written that “[e]verybody associated with the Matt Hale trial has deserved assassination for a long time,” was convicted of soliciting violence against the juror. But an appeals court ruled that White had not directly threatened the man, and reversed the jury’s verdict. On Friday, after the government appealed that reversal, a three-judge panel reinstated the soliciting conviction.
According to The Roanoke Times, the panel’s decision rested on the context of White’s statements about the juror — namely, the fact that White routinely urged his readers to assassinate people he didn’t like. For example, he once wrote a post on Overthrow.com entitled “Kill Richard Warman.” Warman was then an attorney in Canada who had enraged many racist groups with his anti-racist activism.
The court also relied on the fact that most of White’s readers were neo-Nazis. “[R]eaders of Overthrow.com were not casual Web browsers, but extremists molded into a community by the internet — loyal and avid readers who, whether or not they remember every specific solicitation to assassination, knew that Overthrow.com identified hateful enemies who should be assassinated,” its opinion said.
White was known for years for a fairly sophisticated understanding of what constituted a prosecutable threat on the Internet, and he regularly pushed the boundaries of what most legal experts considered permissible. Last Friday’s ruling meant, in effect, that the First Amendment has begun to bite back.