Ruling against anti-abortion website raises storm in US over rights

The anti-abortionists who ran the 'Nuremburg Files' website were fined $ 105 million this week.

The Irish Times
February 4, 1999, CITY EDITION
by Elaine Lafferty

The court decision against antiabortion groups this week was a landmark one, and it has provoked conflicting opinions about free speech, the Web, and what constitutes a threat.

An eight-person jury in Portland, Oregon fined an Internet website operated by two antiabortion organisations and a handful of individuals to the tune of $ 107 million.

This website, and several others like it, encouraged people to protest against the legality and availability of abortion by targeting doctors who performed abortions and activists who support a woman's right to choose abortion to end a pregnancy.

"The Nuremburg Files" web site, which the jury found to constitute "a threat", asked viewers to submit as personal information about the doctors, so the doctors and pro-choice activists could one day be brought before a Nuremburg-style tribunal.

The sites listed doctors by name, gave their home addresses, named their children, and detailed the routes they used to go to work every day.

The perceived threats to abortion providers has not been an idle one in the US. The National Abortion Federation says the anti-abortion movement, supported by the website, has been responsible for 39 bombings, 99 acid attacks and 16 attempted murders. At least two abortion doctors have been killed.

A Florida doctor was shot to death several years ago in a parking lot outside his clinic. Last October Dr Bernard Slepian, was killed in New York when a sniper shot through the windows of his suburban home, as his wife and children cowered on the floor.

Many doctors who perform abortions as part of their regular medical practice now wear bullet-proof vests.

Although the website defendants argued that US free speech laws permit anything in speech or writing, one of them, Andrew Burnett, testified during the trial: "If I was an abortionist, I'd be afraid.

One of the plaintiffs who brought the lawsuit celebrated the $ 107 million verdict.

"Today my safety and my family's safety depends on the courts upholding this law. Citizens are no longer willing to tolerate the domestic terrorism that has pervaded abortion services in this country for so many years," said Dr Elizabeth Newhall.

Still, the victory may be hollow and temporary. Most of the defendants have transferred any assets they own and are considered "judgment-proof", meaning the plaintiffs will not be able to collect.

Moreover, several legal experts say the judge may have interpreted the threats on the site too literally. The American Civil Liberties Union, also said they had concerns that the court decision could be used to prevent other advocacy groups from expressing their views.

The ACLU plans to join in an appeal, saying the decision impinges on the First Amendment guaranteeing free speech, and that the standards to limit speech must not be a mere threat but a show of clear evidence that there was intent to carry out the threat.

Copyright 1999 The Irish Times

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