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Cross Burning Decision Could "Doom" Anti-Abortion Extremists' Case

The US Supreme Court's recent ruling that outlaws cross burning when it is intended to frighten or terrorize has set a precedent that could "doom" a pending appeal by anti-abortion extremists who use "UN-WANTED" wild-west style posters and a Web site to terrorize abortion providers, the LA Times reported today.

The majority opinion declared in Virginia v. Black that the First Amendment does not guarantee freedom of speech if terror or intimidation is the intent. Such speech is in the category of “true threats,” Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote for the majority. “While a burning cross does not inevitably convey a message of intimidation, often the cross burning intends that the recipients of the message fear for their lives,” said O’Connor. University of Richmond law professor Rod Smola, who represented the defendants in Virginia v. Black said that there is “a lot of language” in the opinion will “probably make it easier” to prosecute anti-abortion protesters who “go beyond mere passive expression and engage in activity that is intimidating,” according to Kaiser Daily Reproductive Health Report.

In 1995, an anti-abortion extremist group published “UN-WANTED” posters featuring abortion providers. The group was well aware, as were the providers, that there was a pattern of doctors being murdered after the publication of such posters. The group also helped to construct a Web site called the “Nuremberg Files” that lists abortion providers’ personal information. On the Web site, the names of doctors who were murdered had lines through them crossing them off, and the names of those who had been wounded were marked in gray type. In 1999, Planned Parenthood of Oregon and four Oregon doctors listed on the wanted posters filed suit against 13 anti-abortion extremists and the anti-abortion groups American Coalition of Life Activists and Advocates for Life Ministries. In American Coalition of Life Activists vs. Planned Parenthood, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the extremists were liable for threats under the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act (FACE). The defendants have asked the Supreme Court to review the case; the Supreme Court has yet to decide what it will do.

The National Clinic Access Project of the Feminist Majority Foundation led a group of 13 reproductive rights organizations that filed an amicus brief in the case. “These posters and the website are threats, which are not protected by the First Amendment,” FMF President Eleanor Smeal stated. “We hope that anti-abortion extremists will learn that the violence and fear they preach will not be tolerated.”

Media Resources: LA Times 4/8/03; Kaiser Daily Reproductive Health Report 4/8/03; Christian Science Monitor 4/8/03; Associated Press 4/7/03; Feminist Daily News 12/20/02

© Feminist Majority Foundation, publisher of Ms. magazine

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