For the Record

Appeals Court Rules For Antiabortion Site

Adam Sonfield, Guttmacher Institute
The time is now. Will you stand up for reproductive health and rights?

First published online:

A federal appeals court on March 28 overturned an injunction—and a $107 million jury verdict—against a group of radical antiabortion activists, ruling that their "Wanted" posters, "Dirty Dozen" list and "Nuremberg Files" Web site constituted political speech protected by the First Amendment. Writing for a unanimous three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, Judge Alex Kozinski held that "political speech may not be punished just because it makes it more likely that someone will be harmed at some unknown time in the future by an unrelated third party." In the court's view, the defendants' speech—including listings of the names, addresses and license plate numbers of doctors who perform abortions and their families—while "pungent, even highly offensive," carefully avoided direct threats.

The case, Planned Parenthood of the Columbia/Wilamette v. American Coalition of Life Activists, originally had led to a February 1999 verdict which ordered two antiabortion groups and 13 individuals to pay damages to a group of abortion providers. The jury found that the threatening materials violated two federal statutes, the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act (FACE) and the Racketeer Influenced Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO). Later that month, Federal District Judge Robert E. Jones issued a permanent injunction preventing the defendants from further publishing wanted posters and contributing material to the Web site.

The original verdict and injunction had been viewed as an important deterrent against clinic violence by abortion-rights proponents. With both overturned at least temporarily (an appeal to the full Ninth Circuit has been requested by the plaintiffs and by a group of 12 U.S. senators and 31 House members), proponents will be focusing on how U.S. Attorney General John D. Ashcroft, a staunch abortion foe, enforces FACE and other protections against clinic violence. Ashcroft's first test began the next day, on March 29, when James Charles Kopp was arrested in France on charges that he assassinated New York abortion provider Barnett Slepian in 1998. Slepian's name was included on the "Nuremburg Files" Web site and was crossed off only hours after his death.—A. Sonfield.