Anti-abortion Web sites: free speech or 'threats'?

Oregon case examines impact of publicizing information aboutdoctors.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

When Elizabeth Newhall trained to become a physician, she had no idea that one day her work might require bulletproof vests, wigs to disguise her identity, and thousands of dollars in surveillance cameras and other security equipment at her clinic in Portland, Ore. But threats made by radical opponents of abortion have required such unusual measures, says Dr. Newhall, one of hundreds of abortion providers around the country whose names have been placed on "wanted" posters and Web sites that critics say advocate violence, including murder. "They were saying to me that if I didn't stop doing abortions, my life was at risk," says Newhall, who fears for the life of her husband (also a doctor who performs abortions) and their children as well. A federal civil suit now under way in Portland tests the extent to which antiabortion activists can publicize personal information about abortion providers, liken them to Nazi war criminals "guilty of crimes against humanity," and suggest that they be subject to personal attack. The trial comes at a time when activists (most of whom denounce violent tactics) have lost a series of cases in which their protests outside clinics have been restricted under the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, a 1994 federal law. And it follows a series of attacks in which clinics have been damaged and seven doctors and other clinic workers have been killed, including most recently Bernard Slepian, shot by a sniper last October in suburban Buffalo, N.Y. Defendants in the case include members of the American Coalition of Life Advocates, a national umbrella group, and the Portland-based Advocates for Life Ministries. Among about a dozen individual defendants is Michael Bray, a pastor in Bowie, Md., who was imprisoned for nearly four years for setting fires to clinics. He also wrote "A Time to Kill," a book that justifies the killing of abortion providers. "I reject the charge that I'm an advocate for the murdering of doctors," Mr. Bray said in an interview with The Buffalo News last November. "I call it justifiable homicide. There's a difference between advocacy and calling it justifiable." But Bray also is quoted as saying, "I support the right of a person to protect the life of a child by using violence." Lawyers for the defendants say their clients' activities are political expressions protected under the Constitution. "This is a case about the threat to kill or injure, which is simply not there," defense attorney Christopher Ferrara argued in court last week. "Opinions? Yes, sometimes harsh. But no violence." To the five doctors, the Portland Feminist Women's Health Center, and a regional office of Planned Parenthood - the groups that brought the suit - the issue is clear: Words can kill. "The defendants have just gone too far, beyond the realm of protected speech," says the plaintiffs' attorney Maria Vullo. "It's terrorism ... against people that do something the defendants disagree with." The 1994 access law bans "certain violent, threatening, obstructive and destructive conduct ... intended to injure, intimidate, or interfere with persons seeking to obtain or provide" reproductive services. The United States Supreme Court has ruled that threats of violence are not protected speech. But what constitutes a "threat" is open to legal debate. The key here may be the context in which the speech or other form of expression is made. If a "reasonable person" interpreted it as "a serious expression of intent to harm or assault," according to a ruling by the US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, then it likely would not be protected. The Oregon case is being closely watched by abortion-rights and anti-abortion groups around the country. Part of the trial is focusing on a Web site called "The Nuremberg Files." It is owned by the Creator's Rights Party of Carrollton, Ga., founded by computer programmer Neal Horsley. Mr. Horsley, who set up the site in 1995, declares that "the most accurate name for legalized abortion is war." It solicits "evidence" to be used against "abortionists in anticipation that one day we may be able to hold them on trial for crimes against humanity." The information sought includes "photos or videotapes of the abortionist, their car, their house, friends, and anything else of interest ... personal data including date and place of birth, home and business addresses and phone numbers, Social Security numbers, automobile plate numbers, names and birthdates of spouse(s), children and friends...." While the site does not explicitly advocate violence, the names of hundreds of doctors, clinic owners and workers, elected officials favoring abortion rights, judges, law-enforcement officials, and "miscellaneous spouses and other blood flunkies" are listed. The names of those who have been injured in attacks on clinics or individuals are grayed out, and "fatalities" have their names stricken through with a line. (Within hours after his killing, Dr. Slepian's name had a line through it.) The Oregon case comes at a time when the national rate of abortion has declined to the lowest point since 1975. The number of facilities providing abortions dropped 14 percent (to 2,042) between 1992 and 1996, according to a recent report by the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a private research group. While this decrease is primarily due to more-effective contraception, the study suggests threats to abortion providers are also a factor. In a related case, the owner of an abortion clinic in Melbourne, Fla., last week sued America Online, CompuServe, and the anti-abortion group Christians for Life. Patricia Windle, owner of the Aware Woman Center for Choice, charges that the Internet service providers helped activists identify employees and clients by offering access to motor-vehicle records associated with automobile license plates.

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