- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 1, 2002

The Supreme Court will hear a case Wednesday morning that some consider one of the most sweeping legal judgments concerning abortion protests and free speech.
Joseph Scheidler v. the National Organization for Women has become a forum on what is protected dissent and what sorts of protests are allowable in the public square. The case involves the rights of women to seek out abortions and the rights of protesters who wish to dissuade them.
Some say it finally will release pregnant women from harassment at abortion clinics. Others say it threatens the future of nonviolent protest by classifying it as racketeering and extortion.
In an interview, NOW lead attorney Fay Clayton declined to predict the outcome of the oral arguments Wednesday, but numerous "friend of the court" briefs say that if abortion protests can be labeled as extortion, then all protest including the youthful anti-globalization foes of the World Trade Organization and Greenpeace's protests against the use of seal fur is imperiled.
"What's at stake is the First Amendment right of free speech," says Seattle lawyer Theresa Schrempp. "NOW is alleging that extremely minor criminal conduct jaywalking, trespassing, standing on the steps of an abortion clinic constitutes extortion under RICO," the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act.
"Showing up at regular political protests are being catapulted into a major felony," she says. "It's like being in the middle of a Kafka-esque novel. Even parking in front of an abortion clinic in a public parking space is being called 'an extortionate act.'"
The huge fines for being charged under RICO which allows injured parties to sue for triple damages dissuades all protesters because, "People say it's not worth the risk to be part of something like this," she says.
Therefore, activist groups such as the Seamless Garment Network, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Catholic Worker houses and the Sojourners community are among at least 40 individuals and two dozen organizations that have joined the case as "friends of the court."
If access is denied to protest abortions, then access will be denied to protest other matters, according to one brief from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
"This loose application of federal anti-racketeering laws to political advocacy groups," it said, "constitutes a dagger to the throat of all other movements where minor violence may accompany political action."
The defendants also have been charged with violating the Hobbs Anti-Racketeering Act, which makes extortion a federal crime. It defines extorters as having acquired the property of their victims. NOW argues that by blocking clinic entrances, pro-life activists have confiscated intangible property such as the right to conduct an abortion business.
The 16-year-old court case began when the Pro-Life Action League, based in Chicago, began to offer seminars on such abortion protest strategies as picketing and buttonholing women on sidewalks outside of abortion clinics. Action League Director Joseph Scheidler, a Roman Catholic, learned nonviolent protest tactics from Martin Luther King Jr. during the march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., in 1965. Mr. Scheidler later wrote "Closed: 99 Ways to Stop Abortion."
In 1986, NOW filed its first lawsuit against Mr. Scheidler, saying the protesters were using force, violence and intimidation to obstruct the rights of doctors to perform abortions and the rights of women to have them.
In 1989, NOW amended its complaint to cite violations of RICO and listed Action League activists Andrew Scholberg and Timothy Murphy, and Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry as plaintiffs. Mr. Terry settled out of court with NOW in 1998.
In May 1991, a U.S. district court in Chicago dismissed the case, saying RICO was not applicable. A federal appeals court concurred. But in 1994, the U.S. Supreme Court said RICO could be used if it could be shown that abortion protests fit a pattern of extortion.
In 1998, a reconstituted NOW v. Scheidler case began making its way through the court system. That April, a jury held the Pro-Life Action League guilty of violating RICO and levied penalties of $257,000 in damages and at least $1 million in attorney's fees.
In July 1999, U.S. District Judge David Coar in Chicago issued a nationwide injunction prohibiting sit-ins outside of abortion clinics and other nonviolent civil disobedient acts. This ruling was based on NOW's assertion that pro-life protesters were responsible for hundreds of violent incidents.
About two years ago, said Jim Geoly of the Catholic Conference of Illinois, NOW issued a news release calling a sidewalk prayer vigil led by Cardinal Francis George an "act of aggression."
There was no violence at the vigil, he said, "but in this heated environment, if people feel extorted, that turns the protest into an 'act of aggression.' There's no obvious parameters with this, and the guilt by association in this case is extreme."
NOW said there have been hundreds of examples of real violence and extortion by anti-abortion demonstrators, such as a 1989 demonstration in which four abortion clinic staffers in Chico, Calif., said they were crushed against a glass wall for four hours until the glass gave way.
But some NOW witnesses may have lied, according to the Oct. 5 issue of World magazine, in which it said a researcher for the Scheidler defense found a videotape of the entire Chico demonstration, showing no anti-clinic violence.
Meanwhile, an appeals court upheld the 1998 judgment. Mr. Scheidler's defense appealed again, and April 22 this year, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide