Appeals court says threats against abortion doctors protected
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) – A federal appeals court threw out a record $107 million verdict against anti-abortion activists Wednesday, ruling that a Web site and wanted posters branding abortion doctors ”baby butchers” and criminals were protected by the First Amendment.
A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously said the activists could be held liable only if the material authorized or directly threatened violence.
The ruling came two years after a jury in Portland, Ore., ordered a dozen abortion foes to pay damages to Planned Parenthood and four doctors. They had sued under federal racketeering law and the 1994 federal law that makes it illegal to incite violence against abortion doctors.
The case was widely seen as a test of a recent Supreme Court ruling that said a threat must be explicit and likely to cause ”imminent lawless action.”
”If defendants threatened to commit violent acts, by working alone or with others, then their (works) could properly support the verdict,” Circuit Judge Alex Kozinski wrote. ”But if their (works) merely encouraged unrelated terrorists, then their words are protected by the First Amendment.”
Planned Parenthood and the doctors were portrayed in the Old West-style wanted posters as ”baby butchers,” and a Web site called the ”Nuremberg Files” listed the names and addresses of abortion providers and declared them guilty of crimes against humanity.
Planned Parenthood said it would ask the court to reconsider its decision, or petition the Supreme Court to review the ruling.
”We are obviously disappointed with the panel’s decison and firmly believe that it is wrong,” said Maria Vullo, the group’s attorney.
Don Treshman, one of the abortion foes named in the Planned Parenthood suit, said he no longer had to pay his $8 million share of the jury’s verdict.
”We were all accused of creating an umbrella of fear in the minds of abortionists that it wasn’t safe for them to go to work,” the 57-year-old Baltimore man said. ”We now retain the free speech right to call abortion what it is: cold-blooded murder of a baby in the womb.”
The anti-abortion activists said their posters and Web site were protected under the First Amendment because they were merely a list of doctors and clinics – not a threat.
”I think its a great relief that our posters are just as protected by the First Amendment as the posters of any other movement,” said Christopher A. Ferrara, the attorney who represented the activists.
During the trial, U.S. District Judge Robert Jones instructed the jury to consider the history of violence in the anti-abortion movement, including three doctors killed after their names appeared on the lists.
One was Dr. Barnett Slepian, who was killed by a sniper in 1998 at his home near Buffalo, N.Y. Slepian’s name was crossed out on ”The Nuremberg Files” Web site later that same day.
Doctors who were on the list testified that they lived in constant fear, used disguises, bodyguards and bulletproof vests, and instructed their children to crouch in the bathtub if they heard gunfire.
The defendants maintained they were political protesters collecting data on doctors in hopes of one day putting them on trial like Nazi war criminals were at Nuremberg.
After the jury’s verdict, the judge called the Web site and the wanted posters ”blatant and illegal communication of true threats to kill.”
The man who ran the Nuremberg Web site was not a defendant in the lawsuit, but his Internet provider pulled the plug on the site after the verdict.
Among the defendants was Michael Bray of Bowie, Md., author of a book that justifies killing doctors to stop abortions. Bray went to prison from 1985 to 1989 for his role in arson attacks and bombings of seven clinics.
Another defendant was Cathy Ramey of Portland, an editor at Life Advocate magazine and author of ”In Defense of Others,” which defends people who refuse to condemn the killing of abortion providers.
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