Can anti-abortion activists be sued for racketeering?
The high court considers whether a law used against mafia groups can be brought into the abortion arena.
WASHINGTON — Joseph Scheidler makes no apologies for his strategy or tactics. He says his goal is to save the lives of children by preventing as many women as possible from having abortions.
But the former Benedictine monk-turned-anti-abortion crusader absolutely denies the label placed on him in 1998 by a civil jury in federal court - "racketeer."
"I knew years ago I would be sued if I was effective," Mr. Scheidler says. But what he didn't anticipate was that his opponents at the National Organization for Women would use against him the same law - the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act - that federal prosecutors used to bring mafia godfathers to their knees.
Indeed, abortion-rights activists view Scheidler and his associates as a cross between Osama bin Laden and John Gotti - a kind of anti-abortion mob boss/terrorist seeking to shut down abortion clinics nationwide by fostering a climate of fear.
To his supporters, Scheidler is a hero carrying out God's work to save the unborn. He insists he is opposed to violence and that although his tactics can be aggressive, they are not illegal.
Wednesday, the issue arrives at the US Supreme Court, where the justices must decide whether Scheidler's efforts amount to "a pattern of racketeering," and if so, whether a federal judge can issue a nationwide order on behalf of NOW and other abortion-rights organizations seeking to limit Scheidler's future anti-abortion activities.
"If the court comes down on the side of NOW, it is the end of free speech as we know it," Scheidler says.
Abortion-rights activists see the stakes differently. "This case effects the ability of millions of women to exercise their right to choose [to have an abortion] by determining whether they will be able to access those services without fear of harassment and violence," says Kate Michelman, president of NARAL, which supports the NOW litigation.
At issue in the case is a civil lawsuit brought 16 years ago by NOW charging that Scheidler and his Pro-Life Action Network used threats of force, violence, and fear to discourage women from visiting abortion clinics.
That activity amounted to a form of extortion, NOW charged, by forcing women to give up their right to obtain the services of the clinic to avoid ugly confrontations with protesters on the clinic steps. At the same time, clinics were being bombed or vandalized, and some abortion doctors were targeted for assassination.
Fay Clayton, a lawyer for NOW, calls it a "reign of terror" in her brief to the court.
Scheidler says the lawsuit is a house of cards precariously built on "a bunch of perjured witnesses, exaggerations, and lies."
He says he has no connection to and does not support assassins and bombers. "These are loners. They are people we frequently don't know anything about," he says.
Amy Weissman, who filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of NARAL, says the Scheidler case is important because it will help draw a clear line between legitimate protest tactics protected by the First Amendment and those tactics that amount to illegal intimidation.
"This is not going to silence anyone's First Amendment rights. It is going to stop extortion and violence," Ms. Weissman says.
Scheidler says he is prepared to press on regardless of the high court's ruling. "If I lose this case, it is not that big a deal to me," he says.
"This is the difference between godless people and people who believe in God. Godless people have to win because that is all they've got," Scheidler says. "We live for the hereafter."