- The Washington Times - Friday, May 17, 2002

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) A federal appeals court reversed course yesterday and ruled that anti-abortion activists who created Wild West-style posters and a Web site condemning abortion doctors can be held liable because their works amounted to illegal threats, not free speech.

However, the sharply divided 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered a lower-court judge to reduce the $107 million in damages a Portland, Ore., jury awarded to four doctors who sued a dozen of the abortion foes.

At issue was whether the posters and Web sites violated a 1994 federal law that makes it illegal to incite violence and threaten abortion doctors. In its 6-5 decision, the appeals court called the works a "true threat."

The same court had come to an opposite decision last year. Many members of Congress and others had said if the court's original ruling had stood, the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act would have been gutted.

Planned Parenthood and the doctors were portrayed on Old West-style wanted posters passed out at rallies and on a Web site called the "Nuremberg Files," which listed abortion providers' names and addresses, and declared them guilty of crimes against humanity.

The name of Dr. Barnett Slepian was crossed off the list on the Web site after he was killed by a sniper's bullet at his home near Buffalo, N.Y., in 1998.

Four doctors, claiming they feared for their lives, sued under racketeering laws and the 1994 law.

A federal jury found in 1999 that the Web site and some of the posters amounted to threats to kill.

The anti-abortion activists had argued the posters were protected under the First Amendment because they were merely a list of doctors and clinics. They maintained they collected data on doctors in hopes of one day putting them on trial, just as Nazi war criminals were at Nuremberg.

Yesterday, however, the appeals court disagreed.

Circuit Judge Pamela Ann Rymer wrote that there was substantial evidence the posters were distributed to intimidate doctors from giving abortions. Holding the abortion foes accountable "does not impinge on legitimate protest or advocacy," Judge Rymer wrote.

In a dissent, Circuit Judge Alex Kozinski wrote that "the evidence in the record does not support a finding that defendants threatened plaintiffs."

Among the defendants was Michael Bray of Bowie, Md., author of a book that justifies killing doctors to stop abortions. Mr. Bray went to prison from 1985 to 1989 for his role in arson attacks and bombings of seven clinics.

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