Attorneys for pro-life activists deny ‘conspiracy’ accusations
Anti-abortion activists may be guilty of trespassing, but to assume they are mounting a conspiracy to shut down abortion clinics is “laughable,” First Amendment attorney Larry Crain told a U.S. District Court jury on March 5.
Several abortion clinics, along with the National Organization for Women allege in a class-action lawsuit that two pro-life groups and three individuals used fear, threats and violence on a national level against abortion clinic workers and women exercising their constitutional right to an abortion. The suit claims the pro-life activists have violated the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO).
“RICO cannot be used to criminalize speech activity which is non-violent,” said Crain, who is representing Operation Rescue on behalf of the American Center for Law and Justice.
“This statute is aimed at organized activity and threatens any speech which targets a given issue. There's no proof of organized management or control between the various pro-life groups that are accused of being co-conspirators. They are independent.”
Crain said the case “has far reaching First Amendment implications, since most groups who speak out about any issue must associate in order to do so.”
NOW is seeking a nationwide injunction to prevent the defendants from committing or inciting others to commit the range of violent acts that impede women's access to abortion. If the suit is successful, NOW will also ask the court to award triple damages to every clinic in the United States affected by defendants' violence.
“Women still run a gauntlet at abortion clinics,” said NOW President Patricia Ireland. “Doctors and staff at the clinics still face death threats, arson, bombing, stalking, extortion and murder. And abortion opponents who capitalize on these acts to instill fear in every clinic worker are just as guilty as those who light the match or pull the trigger.”
Deborah Fischer, an attorney representing Pro-Life Action League founder Joseph Scheidler, disagrees.
“This is a case of NOW trying to stop [pro-lifers] from standing in front of abortion clinics and giving women information,” she said. “This case infringes on pro-lifers assembly and speech rights, and NOW is trying to intimidate them into not participating in protests in fear of being charged with this statute.”
Fischer said the plaintiffs allege extortion through forms of protest that “creates an environment of fear.”
“There are definitely no aspects of intimidation through physical acts,” she said. “They just want to tie pro-life organizations up in court so that they won't be able to continue their protests. They don't have any evidence.”
The trial is expected to continue through the end of March.