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U.S. Court Tosses Major Anti-Abortion Verdict
By Andrew Quinn
from Reuters

Wednesday March 28 8:01 PM ET

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - A federal appeals court on Wednesday threw out a $109 million judgement against a group of anti-abortion activists, saying they were exercising free speech -- not advocating murder -- when they published wanted-style posters that branded individual abortion providers as ``baby butchers.''

The case, closely watched by both sides of the U.S. abortion debate, involved charges from Planned Parenthood (news - web sites) that the American Coalition of Life Activists (ACLA) and several individuals allied with it were advocating ``justifiable homicide'' of abortion providing-doctors, several of whom were subsequently killed or wounded.

The lists, with titles such as the ``Deadly Dozen'' and the ''Nuremberg Files,'' appeared on posters and on the Internet. The groups identified individual doctors as ``baby butchers'' and urged activists to block them from performing more abortions ''through activities within ACLA guidelines.''

In response, the doctors named on the list took to wearing bulletproof vests, living behind drawn curtains and under the protection of U.S. marshals.

The plaintiffs took the anti-abortion activists to court, charging them with violating federal racketeering laws and the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act passed after the 1993 murder of one Florida abortion provider.

A Portland, Ore., jury found for the plaintiffs in 1999, ordering the ACLA and its allies to pay some $109 million in damages and issuing an injunction to prevent further dissemination of the doctors' names and addresses, which were also published on a Web site run by anti-abortion advocates.

On Wednesday, however, a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned that decision, saying the ACLA never explicitly urged activists to take physical action against the doctors.

``Extreme rhetoric and violent action have marked many political movements in American history,'' the court's decision, written by Circuit Court Judge Alex Kozinski, said.

``As a result, much of what was said even by nonviolent participants in these movements acquired a tinge of menace.''

Protected By First Amendment

The court held that, in this case, the rhetoric was protected by First Amendment guarantees of the right of free speech which does not ``authorize, ratify, or directly threaten'' violence.

The ACLA's statements, while ``pungent, even highly offensive,'' made no such direct threats, it found.

The appeals court justices based their decision on NAACP v. Claiborne Hardware Co, a similar case decided by the U.S. Supreme Court (news - web sites) in 1982. In that case, the nation's highest court decided that black activists could not be prevented from publicly threatening to ``break the necks'' of black shoppers who had been identified as ignoring a civil rights boycott against certain stores.

In that case, the Supreme Court found that the speech was protected because they were ``quintessentially political statements made at a public rally'' rather than threats made directly to individuals.

The case involving the ACLA was analogous, the court said, noting that its publicity campaign against the doctors was part of public debate about matters of public policy.

``While the ACLA named its targets, it said nothing about planning to harm them; indeed, it did not even call on others to do so,'' the opinion said.

Christopher Ferrara, an attorney with the American Catholic Lawyers Association who represented the anti-abortion groups, said he was gratified by the appeals court decision.

``This case was never based on anything but two posters and a Web site which do not contain any threats either expressed or implied. It was nothing more than political communication,'' Ferrara said.

``What the court did here is say that the Constitution applies to pro-lifers and their posters, just as it applies to posters put forward by other movements.''

But opponents of the groups, led by Planned Parenthood Federation of America President Gloria Feldt, expressed outrage over a decision they said could lead to more violence at America's abortion clinics.

``Reasonable people understand the difference between free speech and harassment that creates a violent social climate,'' Feldt said. ``Regardless of the next steps in this case, Planned Parenthood remains committed to doing everything we can within the law to protect our patients, doctors, staff and facilities -- and to bringing to justice terrorists who threaten them.''

The American Civil Liberties Union (news - web sites), usually one of the country's staunchest defenders of free speech rights, also expressed concern over the ruling.

``We've contended all along that the first amendment protects the right to protest against abortion, but it doesn't protect the right to threaten abortion providers with harm,'' Jann Carson, associate director of the ACLU of Oregon, said. ''We thought that the record was sufficient to find that intent.''

In several cases, doctors named on ACLA lists were actually killed, including the 1993 murders of Dr. David Gunn in Pensacola, Florida, and Dr. George Patterson in Mobile, Alabama, Planned Parenthood officials said.

Overall there were five murders, nine attempted murders, five bombings and 30 cases of arson at abortion clinics from 1992 to 1994, according to Planned Parenthood.

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