In the largest judgment ever levied against anti-abortion activism, a federal jury in Oregon in February assessed $109 million in damages against two pro-life organizations and a dozen individuals associated with the Nuremberg Files site on the Internet's World Wide Web.
Planned Parenthood, All Women's Health Services, and four abortionists had filed a $200 million civil lawsuit in Portland, Oregon, against the American Coalition of Life Activists (ACLA), Advocates for Life Ministries, and a dozen individuals in the first case of its kind. The three-week trial focused on the content of an Internet Web site and two "wanted"-style posters.
Defendant Joseph Foreman, the Presbyterian minister who helped draft ACLA's constitution, said, "There's been only one death threat in this entire case and that's the threat to the First Amendment."
Attorney Christopher A. Ferrara of the American Catholic Lawyers Association said, "If these posters are threatening, then virtually any document which criticizes an abortionist by name could be construed as threatening." Ferrara promised to appeal.
Defendant Charles Wysong, founder of the American Rights Coalition—which files malpractice lawsuits against abortion providers—sees an ulterior motive. "This was a strategic lawsuit against political participation."
CYBERSPACE RIGHTS: As more organizations have used the Web to get out their message, the rights of free speech in cyberspace are being challenged.
In the past, only physical actions had been targeted as the basis for lawsuits against pro-life activists, using both the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act (FACE) and Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO).
FACE, passed during President Clinton's first year in office (CT, Jan. 10, 1994, p. 55), makes it a federal crime to threaten, commit violent acts, or physically block entrances to abortion facilities. Although FACE has been used as a deterrent to on-site protests, this is the first time it has been applied to a Web site. Since the passage of FACE, nonviolent protests have fallen out of favor, and there has been a rise in violence against abortion facilities.
Soon after Congress passed FACE, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the RICO law, intended to fight organized crime, could be applied to pro-life groups if activities showed a pattern of conspiracy.
THREATENING SPEECH: The suit charged that the Nuremberg Files Web site constituted a "true threat" by comparing abortionists to Nazis tried for war crimes at the end of World War II. The site, which has a heading declaring "Visualize Abortionists on Trial," contains wanted-style posters, including a "Deadly Dozen" unveiled in 1995 by ACLA, which had spun off from Operation Rescue but disbanded by 1997.
Prosecuting attorneys sought to prove that the Web site and posters, even though void of directly threatening words, established serious threats when taken in the context of an atmosphere of violence coupled with the killing of two abortionists who had appeared on similar wanted-style posters. After the verdict, plaintiffs said they would push for the posters and Web site to be shut down legally.
The Nuremberg Files (www.christiangallery.com/atrocity) accuses listed persons of being guilty of "crimes against humanity" and requests any information that would help bring conviction "once the tide of this nation's opinion turns against the wanton slaughter of God's children." It displays dripping blood and lists names and detailed information—including license plate numbers and names of abortionists' children.
Abortionists who are murdered, such as Barnett Slepian of Amherst, New York, last October, are crossed off the list. The site's creator, Neal Horsley, Jr., of Carrollton, Georgia, testified that the files "were never intended to be a threat against abortion providers." If the files are ordered removed from online, Horsley plans to distribute CD-ROMS so the "evidence" will not be lost.
Witnesses for the prosecution testified about the fear they felt due to having their names displayed. Some wore bulletproof vests into the courtroom.
FREE SPEECH VERSUS FEAR: The jury had the task of deciding whether this information, along with the posters, was legally protected free speech. The judgment, according to free-speech experts, may sharpen the line between provocative political rhetoric and illegal threats.
Defendants claimed that much of the information could be found in telephone books, and no lawsuits had been filed related to plaintiffs' words in other media. Lawyers for the defendants repeatedly called for a mistrial. Judge Robert E. Jones, who at one point lectured defense attorneys about pro-life literature left in nearby bathrooms, ordered all pro-life lapel pins to be removed and required participants to use the term abortion providers rather than abortionists. Jones ordered the names of the jurors sealed after the ruling.
Several defendants testified that the rights of a fetus deserve protection. "Whatever is justifiable to defend the life of a born child is legitimate to use in the defense of an unborn child," said defendant Michael Dodds.
While pro-lifers stressed differences between philosophy and action, abortion-rights advocates said it does not take a lot of prodding to cross the line to violence.
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