Roanoke man's trial to tackle
First Amendment issues
From a computer in Roanoke, self-proclaimed white supremacist William White launched hate-filled rants into cyberspace, aimed at people he thought had wronged him and the white race. His targets ranged from a black Miami Herald columnist and a Holocaust survivor to a bank employee and tenants who lived in his apartment buildings.
But White’s Web site, overthrow.com, caught the attention of federal authorities in Chicago when White, 31, posted personal information about a Chicago man who had served as foreman of a jury that convicted another white supremacist of plotting to murder a federal judge.
Last October a federal grand jury in Chicago charged White, who owns rental properties in low-income sections of Roanoke, with encouraging violence against the jury foreman by publishing the juror’s name, address and phone numbers. White labeled the foreman as “a gay anti-racist” on his Web site.
Once the Chicago case is resolved, White faces another set of charges in Roanoke federal court. In December a federal grand jury accused White of using e-mail, the telephone, U.S. mail and the Internet to threaten and encourage violence against Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts, Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, a Citibank employee handling a dispute he had with the bank, and a Canadian human rights lawyer.
The Roanoke indictment also accused White of sending threatening letters to his African-American tenants to scare them into dropping housing complaints they had filed against him.
In a May 22, 2008, blog post White wrote that he woke up every morning “feeling the need to kill, kill, kill,” and said that he was depressed because his wife and new-born daughter had been ill.
“Combined with this dead feeling, I realized the other day that I have, almost without realizing it, though that may seem a bit strange, developed a very intricate plot for the murder of about a score of Roanoke City’s Negro nuisances,” White wrote.
No trial dates have been set for White, who is being held without bail in the federal Metropolitan Correctional Center in Chicago.
According to a review of federal and state court records in Roanoke and Chicago, White’s neo-Nazi rants have landed him in the legal system on numerous occasions—as an instigator of lawsuits filed against his perceived enemies and as a defendant warding off accusations made by people who sued him.
White’s rhetoric also cost him tenants in his rental properties, and the loss of rent payments contributed to his decision to file for bankruptcy, court records show.
The Web posts dealing with the Chicago jury foreman pose a thorny legal question by pitting the right to free speech against the sanctity and safety of the justice system and the people who make it work, particularly jurors.
"There’s a powerful social interest in protecting the identity of jurors,” said Rodney Smolla, dean of Washington & Lee University’s School of Law. “Jurors are ordinary people, they get paid very little, they volunteer to do justice and I think we owe them some additional protection.”
Smolla said that if jurors fear reprisals in cases involving radical groups like white supremacists, it will be difficult to hold a fair trial.
The Chicago grand jury said White posted the jury foreman’s photograph, date of birth, home and work addresses and phone numbers—along with the name of the man’s cat—with the intention of encouraging one of the readers of his Web site to harm the juror.
In his Internet posting, White said the foreman had played a key role in convicting Matthew Hale, leader of the Illinois-based World Church of the Creator, who was found guilty of plotting to murder U.S. District Judge Joan Lefkow in Chicago. The jury found that Hale had solicited a hit on Lefkow by a church member, who – unknown to Hale – had been working with the FBI.
While Hale was awaiting sentencing four years ago, Bart Ross, a Chicago resident, broke into Lefkow’s home and shot to death the judge’s husband and mother. Police said Ross was a disgruntled litigant dying of cancer who had lost a case in Lefkow’s court. He was not connected to Hale or his white supremacist group, and Ross killed himself as police were investigating the killings. He confessed to the two killings in a suicide note, police said.
The day after the killings, White said in a post on his Web site that he was elated, not saddened by the deaths of the judge’s family members.
“In fact when I heard the story I laughed,” White wrote. “Good for them! was my first thought. Everyone associated with the Matt Hale trial has deserved assassination for a long time.”
At a hearing in October, White testified that his Web site was meant to be “tabloid news” and that he sensationalized much of what he wrote.
“So it sounds terrible, it looks terrible, it looks like this angry stuff, but it’s fictionalized,” White said.
Courts are divided over what kinds of statements constitute a threat, said Smolla, a First Amendment scholar. Some courts look at the intent of the speaker and say there must be proof of a threat, he said. But other judges say that if a reasonable person would interpret the statement as a threat or feel threatened, then the speech is prohibited, Smolla said.
The bottom line, he said, is: “We have to separate violent rhetoric from true threats and actual incitement.”
When questioned at the October hearing about posting personal information about people on overthrow.com, White claimed it was a background check his organization did on everyone in the news. He said he conducted similar background checks on potential tenants at his rental properties.
“When somebody is making statements that are highly negative and then they provide location information, it’s very hard to come up with a plausible explanation for why that information is needed,” Smolla said.
And adding a caveat that readers should not harm the person under discussion does not necessarily excuse the threatening speech, he said.
Nishay (CQ) Sanan (CQ), one of White’s Chicago lawyers, said he believes there must be proof of a direct connection between the speech and actual intent to harm.
In mid-December White’s lawyers were rebuffed by a judge when they asked him to dismiss the Chicago indictment because they believed it violated White’s right to free speech. The defense attorneys argued that prosecutors lacked proof that White’s post would encourage someone to harm the jury foreman.
“Not only is this connection tenuous and logically flawed, but the government’s view of what constitutes solicitation amounts to nothing more than a chilling effect on free speech,” the defense attorneys wrote.
In response, Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Ferrara said White’s detailed posts on his Web site could have only one purpose: to incite violence against the juror.
“The most valuable information (White) could provide to the persons intended to commit the crime was the victim’s name, what he/she looks like, and where to find him/her,” Ferrara wrote, “exactly the information acquired by defendant and then provided directly to those he solicited to carry the crime out through his Internet postings.”
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