Pull the plug on Web's anti-abortion hit list

January 19, 1999|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON -- Imagine you woke up one day to discover -- surprise! -- you're on a hit list.

The list also names your spouse and your children. It gives your address and tells the world where you work and what you do. And it is posted on the Internet, where it is available to anyone, ill or healthy, who has a grudge against the work you do.

So you track down the people who have posted the list and demand that they stop it. But they argue that the First Amendment lets them do it. What are you, they accuse, some sort of censor?

If this sounds like lunacy to you, perhaps you can begin to imagine how it feels to be a doctor listed on the Internet site known as The Nuremberg Files.

The name of this anti-abortion Web site, created by Neal Horsley, a computer programmer in Georgia, refers to the German city where war criminals were tried after World War II. Mr. Horsley says his aim is not to threaten or intimidate but simply to gather information. Then someday, if the country decides to start jailing women who have abortions and the doctors who give them, the abortion doctors on the list can be tried for "crimes against humanity."

That's Mr. Horsley's story, anyway. More than 200 doctors are listed as "baby butchers" on the site, plus scores of clinic owners and workers are named. But it doesn't stop there. It also names some of their spouses and children, as well as judges and politicians who support the right to have an abortion, as if mere abortion rights advocacy will be enough to get you convicted in Mr. Horsley's dream world.

Ominously, doctors who have been murdered, like Barnett A. Slepian of Amherst, N.Y., who was shot to death by a sniper last fall, have their names crossed out. Those who have been wounded have their names posted in gray.

Now some of the listed doctors and pro-choice groups like Planned Parenthood are suing the site on the grounds that it incites violence under a 1994 federal law created to protect abortion providers.

The trial, which began last week in Portland, Ore., examines a particularly vexing dilemma for those of us who defend free and unfettered speech. The free marketplace of ideas that the Web has opened up works best when users can access all ideas, even the most objectionable ones. But I, for one, am willing to make a slight exception if it will shut down The Nuremberg Files.

This sinister Web site offers more than ideas. It is naming names and, by strong implication, targeting them in an ominous way. You don't have to be a lawyer to know that the mere naming of names moves the speech or writing in question into a less free area of the law and a very important area of legal liability.

The naming of names obliges the person who is doing the naming to be careful as to how they are using the other person's name. You are not free, for example, to libel or slander anyone you choose. You are not free to directly intimidate anyone whom you do not like. You cannot unreasonably invade the privacy of others with your free speech rights, just because you happen to be nosy.

If the Web site in question had no names, it could make its political points just as well and retain its First Amendment protection. On the other hand, if it boldly threatened the lives of those it lists, as in "Please Kill These People," it would almost certainly be found to be illegal. Instead, its creators walk the edge, exploiting both situations at once.

The Supreme Court's threshold is high, as it should be, for limiting free speech. In the case of threats, the high court has ruled that the threat must be likely to create "imminent lawless action."

How imminent is "imminent"? My dictionary defines "imminent" as "ready to take place, (especially) hanging threateningly over one's head." By that standard, the judge and jury need look no further than the courthouse, where the trial is being held, to see danger overhead. Security is tight. Parking outside the building has been banned. A parade of doctors described in court how they have adopted disguises, bulletproof vests and creative ways of getting to and from work, all because they were listed on the site.

And how about this quote: "If I was an abortionist, I would be afraid."

That didn't come from one of the plaintiff's lawyers. It came under oath from one of the defendants, Andrew Burnett, publisher of Life Advocate Magazine, speaking on the extent of anti-abortion violence around the country.

Defendants in this case argue that the Web site offers nothing that can't found in a telephone book. But one's listing in a telephone book is a matter of choice. One's listing in The Nuremberg Files is not. It takes away choice, and not just from doctors.

That tells you something crucial about The Nuremberg Files and its defenders. They are not pro-life. They are anti-choice.

They may argue that a gag on their sinister Web site would silence legitimate protests. Hardly. Legitimate protest by all sides of the abortion issue and others would continue, as it should. It is illegitimate intimidation that must be stopped. Otherwise, we turn the First Amendment into a cruel joke.

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 1/19/99

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