On Wednesday, a judge ruled that the publisher of the neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer must pay American Muslim comedian Dean Obeidallah $4.1 million for falsely portraying him as a terrorist.
In 2017, Obeidallah, a Daily Beast contributor, wrote an article for the site questioning President Trump's response to white supremacist violence.
The following day, Daily Stormer founder Andrew Anglin smeared Obeidallah in a post casting him as the "mastermind" behind the Manchester Arena bombing that killed 22 people.
"He fabricated tweets that made it look like I was tweeting — that I was the mastermind of the bombing, I was cheering for it and I did it the name of Allah in my faith as a Muslim," Obeidallah told NPR's Michel Martin. "They looked exactly real with retweets and likes and then [he] directed his readership at the The Daily Stormer to 'confront' me was the exact term."
Commenters responded with graphic death threats against Obeidallah. "They clearly thought I was a terrorist," he said.
The Daily Stormer site, named after the Nazi propaganda newspaper Der Stürmer, spreads messages of anti-Semitism and white nationalism, including "the coming race war," and is known to stoke violence from its audience.
In 2017, James Jackson, a Daily Stormer reader and self-professed racist, traveled from Baltimore to New York where he fatally stabbed Timothy Caughman, a 66-year-old black man. In an act meant to "provoke a race war," Jackson called his killing a "declaration of global total war on the Negro race."
Obeidallah mentioned Jackson's domestic terrorism conviction in the 2017 article that drove Anglin's readers to "confront" him.
"When they say 'confront' you. ... it's not a normal publication saying 'Go challenge his opinions,' " Obeidallah said. "It is direct action in encouraging people to literally confront me and to commit acts of violence."
Though he felt the Daily Stormer community fomented violence, Obeidallah, a former lawyer, said he pursued a civil lawsuit because freedom of speech protections under the First Amendment would've complicated the criminal case route.
"To be charged criminally with inciting violence you must directly say 'Go get this person at this place at this time and we're gonna get him and we're going to kill him,' " he said.
"Instead, it was slightly more ambiguous. But clearly, from a civil point of view, these tweets in this language was not protected by the First Amendment."
Obeidallah said he's happy with the judgment but noted it can't make up for an unpleasant past couple of years.
"As a Muslim being attacked with the worst anti-Muslim trope you can say, is that I'm a Muslim I'm a terrorist," he says. "It was painful to have friends and family express concerns. It was painful to contact security at Daily Beast and my radio channel to say, 'Hey, we might be visited by white supremacists coming to kill me and they might kill innocent people I work with.' That was all horrible."
But he said he never once questioned pursuing legal action. He hopes the win serves as a "roadmap" to inspire others to speak up. "There are lawyers who will represent you," he said. "I'm not kidding — free of charge for this kind of work — to make it clear that we're not going to cower from these people. We're gonna sue them, we're going to win, we're gonna get their money."
In a CNN opinion piece detailing his battle, he said he plans to donate the award money to organizations that combat bigotry.
"To me, the best way to use these white supremacists' money is to invest it in organizations and projects dedicated to countering and eradicating their hateful ideology," Obeidallah wrote.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Continuing the conversation about new technologies, this week, lawmakers debated how to deal with information generated by artificial intelligence, which they fear could be used to smear candidates and interfere with elections. A comedian and commentator named Dean Obeidallah decided to tackle this conduct the old-fashioned way. He sued his defamers, and he won. This week, a judge ruled that the publisher of the neo-Nazi site The Daily Stormer must pay Obeidallah $4.1 million for falsely portraying him as a terrorist. Here to tell us more is Dean Obeidallah. He's with us from our bureau in New York. Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.
DEAN OBEIDALLAH: Thank you.
MARTIN: So let me just remind everybody again exactly what happened. What was your specific complaint against The Daily Stormer and its publisher, Andrew Anglin?
OBEIDALLAH: Well, what they did to me and what they wrote about me requires going backwards slightly a little bit. I wrote an article on May 31, 2017, for The Daily Beast, where I've been writing weekly for a few years. And in that article, I used the term white supremacist terrorism. And I said, why will Donald Trump not use the term white supremacist terrorism? Because this is three months before Charlottesville. There was already a spike in white supremacist violence going on.
And that so upset Andrew Anglin at The Daily Stormer, the publisher and founder. He wrote an article the next day smearing me. He fabricated tweets that made it look like I was tweeting that I was the mastermind of the bombing, I was cheering for it and I did it the name of Allah and my faith as a Muslim. And they looked exactly real, with retweets and likes and then directed his readership at The Daily Stormer to confront me was the exact term.
MARTIN: And what happened? Did people think this was you?
OBEIDALLAH: Well, yes.
MARTIN: And did people confront you?
OBEIDALLAH: The Daily Stormer readers clearly thought it was me from the comments that were directed at me that very clearly said that I hope - Dean better hope he dies of natural causes before we get him, things like we should hang him from an elm tree. And in their comments, they clearly saw - thought I was a terrorist. And just so it's clear for people, The Daily Stormer is not your average white supremacist neo-Nazi publication, if there is such one. It is one where readers go to, they exchange information. They animate each other into action.
And readers of The Daily Stormer have committed acts of violence. James Jackson, who I wrote about that May 2017 article, came to New York in March from Maryland to start a race war and killed an elderly African American man and thankfully was arrested before he could kill others. And others have read this publication. So when they say confront you there, it's not a normal publication saying, go challenge his opinions. It is direct action, encouraging people to literally confront me and to commit acts of violence.
MARTIN: OK. But I'm just curious about why, if you feel that these people are promoting and fomenting violence, why isn't this a criminal matter as opposed to a civil matter? I mean, a civil matter is between two private parties, and the only consequence could be money, right? That's the only way it can be a remedy. But if you feel that this group is actually encouraging violence, why isn't this a criminal complaint?
OBEIDALLAH: It would be a harder case to prove from a criminal point of view because the direct - just as a lawyer, I can say, I mean, speech is protected and has more protections in the criminal setting. So to be charged criminally with inciting violence, you must directly say, go get this person at this place.
MARTIN: Go get him.
OBEIDALLAH: And we're going to get him. And we're going to kill him. Instead, it was slightly more ambiguous. But clearly, from a civil point of view, these tweets and this language was not protected by the First Amendment.
MARTIN: Before we let you go, how do you feel? I mean, I know this has not been a - this has not been a pleasant couple of years...
MARTIN: ...Dealing with this and being - first of all, just being falsely defamed for having associated with something, you know, so heinous and then being maligned in this way. I mean, was at least that moment in court when the judge ruled in your favor, like, how did that feel?
OBEIDALLAH: No, that felt great. Did it make up? I can't go back to my life pre-June 1, 2017, where I'm getting smeared. And as a Muslim, being attacked with the worst anti-Muslim trope you can say is that I'm a Muslim and I'm a terrorist. So it was very painful. It was painful to have friends and family express concerns. It was painful to contact security at Daily Beast and my radio channel to say, hey, we might be visited by white supremacists coming to kill me. And they might kill innocent people I work with. That was all horrible.
But through this all, I've never once questioned doing this. This is the right thing to do. It's the thing we have to do. And I'm happy we got the judgment. And we're going to continue. And I hope it inspires others and gives them a roadmap to say, don't be silent. There are lawyers who will represent you - I'm not kidding - free of charge for this kind of work to make it clear that we're not going to cower from these people. We're going to sue them. We're going to win. We're going to get their money.
MARTIN: That's Dean Obeidallah. He's the host of "The Dean Obeidallah Show" on Sirius XM. He's a columnist for The Daily Beast. And he's a comedian and a former lawyer. Dean, thanks so much for talking to us.
OBEIDALLAH: Thanks for having me on, Michel. I appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.