May 24, 2002


Poster Children : After 9/11, what can abortion protesters get away with? (Dahlia Lithwick, May 22, 2002, Slate)
The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decided Planned Parenthood v. American Coalition of Life Activists last week, in an opinion that melted down the First Amendment in ways that would ordinarily trigger national alarm bells for free-speech activists. Before Sept. 11, a decision treating ambiguous threats as unprotected speech might have been troubling. But after Sept. 11, this result may well have been inevitable. The decision may just be about abortion protesters, but the subtext reveals a new awareness of the power of seemingly benign "threats" in a high-speed world of zealotry and hate. In other words, that goofy 9th Circuit may have beaten the rest of us to the punch in realizing that "threats" are never just words anymore.

At issue were a series of Wild West "wanted" posters (a tiny replica can be seen here) and a Web site called the Nuremburg Files. Created in 1995 by anti-abortion activists, the posters featured images of abortion providers,their names and addresses, plus a "reward" of $500 for each doctor who was "persuaded" to stop performing abortions. Posters were handed out at rallies and reprinted in magazines and newsletters. In 1996, the Web site launched, with images of bloody fetuses, threats of eternal damnation, etc. The site names abortion providers, judges, pro-choice politicians, and Mary Tyler Moore as "baby butchers." It also provides

The "wanted" program was pretty effective at dissuading abortion doctors. After his name appeared on a poster in 1993, Dr. David Gunn was shot and killed entering a Florida abortion clinic. Five months later and after his name appeared on a wanted poster, Dr. George Patterson was shot and killed. In 1994, after his name appeared on a poster, Dr. John Britton was killed by Paul Hill.

It's not evident to me why it is important to protect this kind of threatening speech. What useful democratic purpose is served by allowing someone to make implicit death threats, particularly when they incite people to murder? Posted by Orrin Judd at May 24, 2002 11:40 AM
Comments for this post are closed.