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For more than a year now, the war of words between William A. White and the government has been one of arcane legal arguments.

Did a racist's online rants amount to "true threats," as defined by federal law? Or did the words of White, a neo-Nazi leader, stop short of "inciting or producing imminent lawless action," and thus fall under the protection of the First Amendment?

When White's trial begins today in U.S. District Court in Roanoke, the debate over esoteric legalities will no doubt continue. But for the first time since White was charged with making online threats, the court will hear from his victims.

A nationally syndicated newspaper columnist from Maryland, a human rights lawyer from Canada, a university administrator from Delaware, a former small-town mayor from New Jersey and others have been subpoenaed to testify.

The witnesses are expected to describe the fear they felt after getting telephone calls, e-mails and online abuse from White. The self-described commander of a Roanoke-based white supremacy group, White often lashed out at those who offended his sense of bigotry.

Defense lawyers maintain White is all talk and no threat.

The trial, which could last two weeks, will test the free speech rights of White -- who has been called "possibly the loudest and most obnoxious neo-Nazi leader in America" by the Southern Poverty Law Center -- against the impact of his words.

Although a similar charge against White was dismissed earlier this year in Chicago, Judge James Turk has ruled the Roanoke case can go forward, giving prosecutors a chance to bolster their legal arguments with raw, human emotion.

In court papers, Justice Department lawyer John Richmond emphasized the importance of viewing White's comments in the context of how they affected his targets.

"Evidence that victims panicked, felt anxious, sought law enforcement protection, or took extra steps to ensure their safety is very significant and militates in favor of a fact-finder concluding that a particular statement was a threat," Richmond wrote.

The best way to consider that evidence, the government contends, is through the jury trial that begins today.

Columnist targeted

After eating out the night of Jan. 6, 2007, Christopher Newsom and Channon Christian were forced from their vehicle and taken by carjackers to a house in Knoxville, Tenn.

There, some of the five suspects repeatedly raped the couple, according to news media outlets. Newsom, 23, was taken to some railroad tracks, shot him in the back of the head, and his body was set on fire. Christian, 21, died a slower death, by suffocation, after her beaten and sexually mutilated body was wrapped in trash bags.

Christian and Newsom were white; their attackers were black.

The case soon caught the attention of Leonard Pitts, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Miami Herald whose work is carried by newspapers across the country, including The Roanoke Times.

In a June 2007 column, Pitts derided claims from some critics that the national media -- always eager to report on cases in which whites are accused of victimizing blacks -- ignored this black-on-white crime out of political correctness.

Pitts, who is black, cited the Central Park jogger case as just one example of why he was "unkindly disposed toward the crackpots, incendiaries and flat-out racists who have chosen this tragedy upon which to take an obscene and ludicrous stand. I have four words for them and any other white Americans who feel themselves similarly victimized.

"Cry me a river."

It didn't take long for White to notice the column.

As he is prone to do, White quickly inserted himself into a controversy in which he had no prior involvement. At 11 p.m. the night of June 3, White called Pitts' home and told his wife, who answered the phone, that he was the commander of the American National Socialist Workers Party, the government alleges in an indictment.

Fifteen minutes later, the indictment continues, White e-mailed Pitts. After reciting the lyrics of a song filled with racial slurs, White wrote: "You and your fellow black filth are quickly losing ground, and I look forward to the rapidly approaching day when whites once again rise up and slaughter and enslave your ugly race to the last man, woman and child.

"Itz coming."

Later, the government alleges, White published Pitts' home address and telephone number on his now-defunct Web site, overthrow.com, and encouraged readers to call the columnist.

When officials at the newspaper asked White to delete Pitts' contact information from the Web site, he allegedly replied: "We have no intention of removing Mr. Pitts' personal information.

"Frankly, if some loony took the information and killed him, I wouldn't shed a tear. That also goes for your whole newsroom."

The right to be rude?

Even White's lawyers acknowledge that he comes across as a rude and loudmouthed racist.

But his actions don't amount to threats, defense attorney David Damico said last week in asking Turk to dismiss the charges. "There's nothing here that says, 'I'm going to come to your home to do this,' " Damico said of the charge involving Pitts.

However crude White's approach was, the defense contends, his intent was to engage in "political discourse," thus his words should be shielded by the U.S. Constitution.

Most of White's alleged threats were related to items in the news. A diversity program at the University of Delaware led him to target an administrator at the school, the government alleges. And a mayor in New Jersey drew White's ire after his yard was vandalized by racists.

Defense lawyers say White's comments should be viewed in the context of today's no-holds-barred attitude among commentators on cable television and on the Internet. That especially applies to Pitts and Richard Warman, a human rights lawyer White is accused of threatening, they say.

"These are people who are lightning rods," defense co-counsel Ray Ferris said in court arguments. "They're out there mixing it up."

In July, a Chicago judge used a different standard in dismissing the first charge filed against White, which accused him of posting the name and address of the foreman of a jury that convicted a fellow white supremacist. Prosecutors argued that White meant the man harm, knowing his readers included racists who might be incited to violence.

Citing a U.S. Supreme Court case that dealt with comments at a cross burning, the judge ruled that because White's actions did not provoke "imminent lawless action," they fell under the First Amendment's protection.

Although Turk denied a motion last week by Damico and Ferris to dismiss the seven charges against White, the judge indicated that he might reconsider after the government rests its case.

It is unclear whether White, who seems to have a hard time keeping his thoughts to himself, will share them with the jury. In one of his last public comments before his arrest in October 2008, the 32-year-old was full of his usual bravado.

White said at the time that the government had been investigating him for months, but had filed no charges because prosecutors knew they had no case against him.

"They just know they're going to lose on this," he told The Roanoke Times.

White will soon learn if his prediction comes true.

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