Do courts go too far in limiting protest to get at lawbreakers?

January 25, 1994|By MIKE LITTWIN

If you're keeping score: The pro-choice movement has apparently won the war, but it keeps losing the battles. And the stakes are getting higher.

You've seen the stories.

In many parts of the country, you're hard-pressed to find a doctor who will perform an abortion. Doctors have been intimidated (including the ultimate intimidation: murder) to the point where many have quit. In medical schools, fewer doctors are being taught abortion techniques.

It isn't just doctors who are being intimidated, of course. We've seen many ugly scenes outside abortion clinics. It is often a poor, young woman at a vulnerable time who is under siege from anti-abortion protesters.

Pro-choice advocates say the protesters are there to harass. The protesters say their only motive is to save lives.

As you'd expect, the protesters come in all varieties. Some come to educate. Some come to intimidate. Some come to break the law. In any case, they keep coming. This is an issue that, like the protesters themselves, will not go away.

Usually, the anti-abortion people lose in the courtroom.

Often, they win in the street.

Roe vs. Wade lives, but the challenges, at every stage, continue. And so, the pro-choice advocates are fighting back. Which is where it gets dangerous.

They're trying to fight back through the courts. But, as they do, they're moving into explosive territory.

For example, the Supreme Court ruled yesterday that RICO, an anti-racketeering law, can be used in bringing suits against anti-abortion organizations trying to block access to clinics.

This means leaders of anti-abortion groups can be sued as conspirators even if they did not directly participate in the illegal activity. They are also liable for triple damages.

The National Organization of Women, which brought the case, says it wants RICO as a tool to fight anti-abortion terrorism and not legitimate protest.

But RICO can now be used against any protest group. It would have applied, had it then been law, to civil rights protests and anti-war protests, both of which had their violent moments. Conspiracy laws have been misused against political protest for as long as both have existed.

Is this the direction NOW wants to take us?

There's another case which the Supreme Court has agreed to hear. It involves an abortion clinic in Melbourne, Fla. Operation Rescue has been very active there. Often, there are up to 400 protesters at the clinic, using bullhorns to intimidate clients. There have been many arrests.

A Florida state judge has issued a series of increasingly restrictive injunctions designed to allow the clinic to operate.

In the injunction that the Supreme Court will hear, the judge said it was illegal to approach anyone within 300 feet of the clinic unless that person initiates the contact. The injunction also put a JTC 36-foot buffer around the clinic in which there can be no demonstrations. Inside that buffer is a public sidewalk.

He issued this injunction because Operation Rescue kept violating earlier injunctions.

But let's look at this closely. Let's say I have nothing to do with Operation Rescue. Let's say I'm just a regular person who opposes abortion. Let's say I think it's my duty to rescue unborn babies. Let's say I just want the chance to talk to confused women and try to explain to them what they are doing.

Under this injunction, I pretty much cannot. I'm guilty by association. My freedom of speech is limited because others might have abused theirs.

I can't picket on a sidewalk because maybe other protesters keep storming the door. I've done nothing wrong. Why not just arrest the offenders? Why come after me? Am I being punished for my political views?

As it happens, I'm pro-choice. But I'm also pro-protest. I'm for the rights of minorities to be heard.

I feel for women who get intimidated. There are laws already in place against blocking access to a clinic. There are laws against stopping someone's progress. There are laws against harassment.

People who repeatedly break these laws can be legitimately subject to injunctions -- or put in jail.

But what about those who don't break the law? Any political protest that has succeeded -- from civil rights to labor rights -- has won because of the right of free speech. It's our most important right. What makes America great is that we allow all voices to be heard, even when we don't want to listen to them.

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