Jury awards $118 million damages over doctor “hit list” website
OREGON–In an early February verdict in a case attempting to define the line between threats of imminent personal harm and speech protected by the First Amendment, a federal District Court jury awarded a group of doctors and clinics nearly $118 million from anti- abortion activists who distributed Western-style “Wanted” posters of doctors who perform abortions and supported a website that provided personal information about doctors and clinics that plaintiffs argued constituted a “hit list.”
Planned Parenthood, along with the Portland Feminist Women’s Health Center and four doctors, initiated the lawsuit against a dozen anti-abortion activists in 1995. They claimed there was a direct link between the “Wanted” posters circulated by the American Coalition of Life Activists and the deaths of doctors who performed abortions, including David Gunn and John Britton, according to Kathy Bachman, Director of Community Services for the Columbia/Willamette Planned Parenthood in Oregon and court records.
After the lawsuit’s inception, the ACLA endorsed a controversial website called the “Nuremberg Files” which depicted computer simulations of dripping blood and dead fetuses and listed personal information for “baby butchers” such as their home addresses, license plate numbers, daily schedules, spouses’ names and children’s ages.
The site’s creator, Neal Horsley, said he constructed the site to gather information about abortion doctors in the event abortion became illegal and the doctors went on trial, similar to the post-World War II Nuremberg trials for Nazi war crimes. Planned Parenthood and the other plaintiffs did not add Horsley to the lawsuit.
The website listed the names of healthy doctors in black, injured doctors in gray and crossed out the names of doctors who had been killed, including Gunn, Britton and Barnett Slepian, who was killed by a sniper near Buffalo, N.Y. in October 1998.
Robert Crist, a plaintiff in the case, testified that he now wears a bulletproof vest and has spent thousands of dollars on home security.
Horsley’s Internet service provider, Mindspring of Atlanta, shut down the website two days after the decision, claiming a violation of the ISP’s “appropriate use” policy.
Planned Parenthood brought the suit under the 1994 Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act forbidding protestors from blocking abortion clinic entrances and under the federal and state Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act.
In defense, the activists argued that their actions were protected by the First Amendment, that they did not advocate violence, and their speech did not constitute a direct threat to personal safety.
In “incitement” cases, speech can only be restrained in situations where the threat is likely to create “imminent lawless action,” according to federal District Judge Robert E. Jones. In determining whether the posters and the website represented a “true threat,” Jones told the jury that the question was “whether a reasonable person would foresee that the statement would be interpreted by those to whom the maker communicates the statement as a serious expression of intent to harm or assault.”
In October, Jones had decided that bumper stickers and posters, which did not specifically identify doctors or clinics that perform abortions, did not constitute “real threats.”
A representative from the Legal Center for the Defense of Life said the organization plans to appeal the February decision. (Planned Parenthood of the Columbia/Willamette, Inc. v. American Coalition of Life Activists)