ROANOKE, VA. — Did white supremacist Bill White threaten people with whom he disagreed? Or were his outrageous comments protected speech under the First Amendment?
The jury appeared to listen closely as lawyers for both sides presented opening arguments this morning in White’s trial, which began yesterday with jury selection. White, who led the neo-Nazi American National Socialist Workers Party until his arrest, is accused of making threats against various people with whom he disagreed.
Government prosecutor Cindy Chung told the stories of the six alleged victims who’d been contacted by White, describing how his E-mails, phone calls and Internet postings had adversely affected their lives. A woman who’d received a letter addressed “Dear Nigger Tenant” was afraid to stay in her home. After getting an E-mail with the subject line “Nigger Pitts,” Pulitzer-Prize winning columnist Leonard Pitts wouldn’t let his 11-year-old grandson play in his yard and had armed security at his home for two weeks. A Canadian civil rights lawyer — who White said was “in need of execution” — was afraid to put his gym membership in his own name and took different routes to work. When White called the office of a university professor to say people like her should be hunted down and shot, the professor became so panicked that she was unable to call her father, whose address White had posted on his website, and had to ask a co-worker to do it for her.
“Bill White singled out these complete strangers and targeted them with a series of threats and intimidation,” Chung said. “The defendant stole the safety and security these people felt in their homes.”
Ray Ferris, one of White’s Roanoke-based defense lawyers, contended that White “did some ugly things,” but his conduct wasn’t illegal if it didn’t communicate a “true threat.” A true threat is what a reasonable person would interpret as expressing the intention to cause injury or death. If it’s not a true threat, then it’s protected speech under the First Amendment, Ferris said. “This case is about speech. It’s about talk. It’s about a lot of hot air from my client.”
He said the context of White’s speech must be taken into account, especially the fact that the personal information White posted was available to anyone with a few clicks of a computer mouse. “This was not information that was surreptitiously obtained and then broadcast for the world to know,” he said. “This was information that was on the Internet.”
An all-white jury was empanelled yesterday after lawyers for both sides spent hours grilling members of the jury pool. The government challenged the defense’s decision to strike two black prospective jurors, but U.S. District Court Judge James Turk said the defense gave valid reasons for the strikes and he was satisfied they were not race related.