Below you’ll find case studies of people in the U.S. who pursued legal action in an effort to defend themselves from online abuse.
In 2016, Andrew Anglin, publisher of the neo-Nazi site The Daily Stormer, called on his readers to engage in a “troll storm” against a Jewish woman in Montana named Tanya Gersh and her family. Confronted with a barrage of threats and hateful messages, she and her family fled their home. With the assistance of the Southern Poverty Law Center, Gersh filed suit against Anglin for “invasion of privacy, intentional infliction of emotional distress and violation of the Montana Anti-Intimidation Act.” A federal magistrate judge ruled against Anglin in 2019 after he failed to appear in court, ordering him to pay over $14 million in damages to Gersh.
In the landmark case of Elonis v. United States, a man in the process of divorcing his wife posted seemingly threatening song lyrics on Facebook. Anthony Elonis included disclaimers that the violent lyrics were “fictitious” and “therapeutic.” Elonis was prosecuted under federal law (18 U.S.C. § 875(c)) which prohibits making threats over the internet. The Supreme Court ruled that this provision of federal law required that prosecutors allege and prove that the defendant had the “intent” to commit a crime. The court determined that it did not matter whether a reasonable person would have been threatened by the statement. What mattered is whether the actual defendant had the subjective intent to threaten. In effect, this decision significantly increased the difficulty of prosecuting the posting of threats on social media.
Leonard Pozner, the father of a victim of the Sandy Hook school shooting, was being harassed by Wolfgang Halbig, a far-right conspiracy theorist and Infowars contributor who claimed that the shooting was a government-sponsored hoax. Starting in 2014, Halbig released sensitive personal information on Pozner, including a 100-page background report with Pozner’s home address. Halbig also continually emailed Pozner’s Social Security Number, birthday, and other identifying information to news outlets and police departments. Pozner currently lives in hiding after being subjected to a barrage of threats from Infowars-fueled extremists. In 2020, after Pozner filed a complaint against Halbig for unlawful possession of personal identification information, a crime under Florida law, Halbig was arrested.
In 2018, Jackson Cosko, a former aide to U.S. Senator Maggie Hassan, illegally accessed congressional computers and shared personal information about five Republican senators, including home addresses and phone numbers. Cosko admitted to doing so after being upset by the confirmation proceedings for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Cosko was charged with multiple felonies under federal law (including making public restricted personal information, threats in interstate communications, unauthorized access of a government computer, and identity theft). He pled guilty and was ultimately sentenced to four years in prison. The judge was particularly concerned by the political motivations of the perpetrator, stating, “It was a rather vicious offense. That was totally unjustified… We need to send a message out there. We need to have some deterrent and community understanding.”
Nonconsensual Intimate Imagery
In 2014, a woman (referred to as Jane Doe in court filings) filed a civil suit against her ex-boyfriend (David Elam II) when he shared nude photos and videos of her following their breakup. Elam, however, went further than posting the images online; he also sent links to Doe’s mother and a law school classmate, and impersonated Doe on dating and pornographic websites. This continued even after Doe had secured a restraining order against him. Doe’s lawsuit claims included “copyright infringement, online impersonation with intent to harm, stalking and the intentional infliction of emotional distress.” Because Doe had originally transmitted the photos to Elam consensually, she ultimately had no choice but to copyright her breasts in order to successfully get the images taken down. In 2018, a federal district judge ruled in favor of Doe, ordering Elam to pay $6.45 million in damages and destroy the photos and videos.
In 2019, Representative Katie Hill resigned from Congress after nude photos of her were published by conservative media outlets Red State and The Daily Mail. Hill sued the news sites under California’s civil nonconsensual intimate imagery law. The defendants filed Anti-SLAPP motions to dismiss the lawsuits, claiming that the lawsuit infringed upon their constitutionally protected speech and the case lacked merit because the images were an issue of public interest. In 2021, a judge ruled against Hill, dismissing the case under California’s Anti-SLAPP statute. Because the images showed Hill with a campaign worker and using drugs, the judge opined that the photos reflected on Hill’s “character, judgment and qualifications for her Congressional position,” information which the judge deemed to be of public interest. Carrie Goldberg, Hill’s attorney and a pioneer in online abuse law, stated: “Anybody who dares enter the public eye should now have legitimate concern that old nude and sexual images can be shared widely and published by any person or media purporting to have journalistic intentions.”
Cyberstalking/Violating Restraining Orders
After multiple instances of physical abuse over several years, a woman was granted a protective order (aka, a restraining order) against her abuser, Parris Deshaunte Evitt, in 2017. Evitt then turned his harassment and threats to the virtual realm, using texts, phone calls, emails, and Facebook messages to contact the victim over the course of two years. In 2020, Evitt was found guilty of violating the protective order and sentenced to nearly four years in prison. He was also ordered to pay compensation for the victim’s hotel costs after she fled her home in the face of his threats.
Therese Bottomly, the editor of The Oregonian, repeatedly received calls and emails from a local man denying that mass shootings, including the Sandy Hook massacre, had ever taken place. Bottomly told him to cease these communications; in response, he sent her a message with her home address and symbols of death. At the urging of the police, Bottomly successfully filed for a protective order (aka, a restraining order) against him. Before the order could be served, he was indicted by a grand jury for stalking and harassing Bottomly and promptly arrested.
- Documenting Online Abuse
- Assessing Online Threats
- Involving Law Enforcement
- Legal Basics 101
- Federal Laws
- State Laws
- Restraining Orders
- Legal Resources for Writers & Journalists
PEN America is deeply grateful to Covington & Burling LLP and C.A. Goldberg, PLLC Victims’ Rights Law Firm for providing pro bono feedback and insights on legal considerations for people facing online abuse. We are also grateful to TrustLaw, Thomson Reuters Foundation for facilitating this pro bono legal support.
IMPORTANT: THE INFORMATION PROVIDED ON THIS WEBPAGE IS OFFERED FOR EDUCATIONAL PURPOSES ONLY. THE INFORMATION DOES NOT, AND IS NOT INTENDED TO, CONSTITUTE LEGAL ADVICE, NOR IS IT INTENDED TO REPLACE THE ASSISTANCE OF A LAWYER OR LAW ENFORCEMENT.