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National NOW Times >> Spring 2002 >> Article

Latest NOW v. Scheidler Decision: Violence and Intimidation at Women's Clinics Not Protected Speech

by Michele Keller, Web Editor

As the country reeled from large-scale international terrorism last fall, feminists celebrated yet another victory against the network of extremists who perpetrate domestic terrorism at abortion clinics.

The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals took a clear, strong stance against abortion-clinic violence on Oct. 2 by upholding the national injunction against Joe Scheidler and his Pro-Life Action League, a network of anti-abortion protesters known to use violence and intimidation against patients and employees of abortion clinics.

Washington, D.C. activists demonstrate in front of the Supreme Court. The NOW v. Scheidler case highlights the importance of urging Senators to reject judicial nominees at all levels who won't uphold reproductive rights and access. In addition to upholding the injunction that prevents anti-abortion groups from interfering with women's right to seek and obtain abortions and other medical services from clinics, the opinion in the case of NOW v. Scheidler noted that violent and illegal conduct — such as blockading or bombing abortion clinics — is never protected under the First Amendment right of free speech.

The opinion pointed to the government's continuing obligation to protect every person's right "to seek medical care free from violence, intimidation and harassment," and stated that "violence in any form is the antithesis of reasoned discussion."

Fay Clayton, the Chicago attorney who successfully argued NOW v. Scheidler before the U.S. Supreme Court, said the appellate court's statements on illegal conduct and First Amendment freedoms were extremely gratifying, particularly during a time when the country is waging war against international terrorist organizations.

"This is an enterprise of terrorists that operates much like al-Qaeda," Clayton said. "They operate in secrecy and they commit acts of violence to intimidate people to prevent them from exercising their constitutional rights."

Originally filed in 1985, the class-action suit NOW v. Scheidler was intended to stop Scheidler, his Pro-Life Action League (PLAL) and other defendants from using terrorist tactics at abortion clinics to intimidate patients and health care providers.

In 1998, a unanimous jury found Scheidler, PLAL, Operation Rescue, and the other co-defendants to be racketeers under the Racketeer-Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO). In 1999, a Federal District Court sided with NOW and the clinics by establishing the injunction.

This nationwide injunction ended the difficult practice of seeking injunctions city-by-city as we learned that Operation Rescue or another of the co-defendants were planning a protest. It bars violence, intimidation and extortion, but protects the anti-abortion protesters' rights to pray, speak or leaflet peacefully on public property. Scheidler appealed it on numerous grounds, including the First Amendment right of free speech.

Clayton says the 18-year effort by a team of lawyers and activists paid off in the form of this extremely effective injunction. Since it was entered and sent to every abortion clinic in the country in 1998, there have been almost no acts of force or violence by protesters.

"These protesters know that if they are arrested, they won't go before a local judge who is too reluctant to prosecute them properly, they will go before a federal judge who has their number," Clayton says. "[They know that] if they cross the line from peaceful protest to illegal violence, we can haul them into federal court in Chicago."

Scheidler is expected to appeal this latest decision; if that happens, the case could go to the Supreme Court a second time.

"The possibility of NOW v. Scheidler reaching the Supreme Court again reminds us that women's rights currently hang in a delicate 5-4 balance on that Court," said Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women. "Abortion rights advocates must stand firm in urging the Senate to reject judicial nominees—at all levels—who won't uphold our most basic freedoms."

For more information:
NOW v. Scheidler

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