Are antiabortion activists essentially gangsters?
The Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday in a long-simmering case over antiabortion demonstrations (a transcript will be available in a few weeks). But both inside and outside the courtroom, everyone is arguing over what the case is really about.
Is it about abortion?
"It may have real consequences for free speech in this country but will impact abortion law not at all," writes Slate.com senior editor Dahlia Lithwick. "It's a testament to how utterly bonkers both sides in this debate have become, that they alone can't see that."
But Joseph Scheidler, the main protester involved in the suit, counters, "As hard as people try to say this case isn't about abortion, it is about abortion."
Is it about free speech?
"The First Amendment is not an issue in this case," U.S. Solicitor General Ted Olson told the court, noting that the Supreme Court had rejected the free speech part of the protesters' appeal.
"There's always a First Amendment implication in a protest case," Justice Anthony Kennedy responded.
The justices are supposedly trying to rule on narrow issues of federal statutory law. Can private parties (such as abortion clinics) sue under anti-racketeering laws themselves, or is action left to the government? And do political protesters' coercion and blockades amount to "obtaining property through wrongful use of force" (whether it's threatened or actual), and are thus acts of extortion?
The protesters admit breaking the law, but argued in earlier courts that they were nonviolent, just coercive. A Chicago jury found them guilty of violating racketeering and extortion laws, essentially putting them in the same category as Al Capone. Other courts upheld the verdict.
If the Supreme Court ...1
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