Civil Liberties

Censoring the Censurers

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Robert Crist, medical director for Planned Parenthood of Kansas and Mid-Missouri, islisted as a "baby butcher" on "The Nuremberg Files," a Website that likens abortionists to Nazi war criminals. Crist's name, along with his photograph and hishome and work addresses, has also appeared on a poster declaring him "Guilty of Crimes AgainstHumanity."

Activists associated with the Web site and the poster have publicly stated that killing people who perform abortions can be morally justified. Meanwhile, at least three abortion doctors have been murdered in recent years after being featured in "wanted"-style posters.

In this context, it's not surprising that Crist started wearing a bulletproof vest and taking a different route to work. He felt that the condemnations of his work amounted to threats on his life.

That theory is being tested in a federal court in Oregon, where Crist, four other doctors, and two clinics are suing two anti-abortion groups and 14 activists. The lead defendant, the American Coalition of Life Activists, produced the Crist poster and helped put together "The Nuremberg Files."

The suit, which seeks $200 million in damages and an injunction to silence the activists, charges them with violating the Federal Access to Clinic Entrances Act by using threats of violence to interfere with abortion services. The difficulty is that, while the activists clearly do not wish abortionists well, they never explicitly threatened anyone.

Furthermore, their rhetoric, harsh and scary though it may be, goes to the heart of the debate over abortion. In other words, it is just the sort of speech the First Amendment is supposed to protect.

Consider "The Nuremberg Files," which asks visitors to "Visualize Abortionists on Trial." Created and maintained by Georgia computer programmer Neal Horsley (who, oddly, is not among the defendants in this case), the site announces that "a coalition of concerned citizens throughout the USA is cooperating in collecting dossiers on abortionists in anticipation that one day we may be able to hold them on trial for crimes against humanity."

Accordingly, Horsley asks readers to submit "evidence," including names and addresses, personal data such as birth dates and Social Security numbers, photographs, videotapes, court records, affidavits, newspaper clippings, and reports from observers. He requests information about doctors and nurses who perform abortions; clinic owners, managers, and security guards; and judges and politicians who support abortion rights.

Contrary to reports in USA Today, The Washington Post, and other newspapers, almostnone of the information in Horsley's files is available online. The site lists more than 200 "allegedabortionists and their accomplices" (including Vice President Al Gore and several members ofCongress), providing only names and states for all but a few.

This is significant because it makes Horsley's stated goal of establishing an archive, as opposed to assisting anti-abortion hitmen, more plausible. The site serves other nonviolent goals as well, stirring up outrage about abortion (hence the grisly pictures of dismembered fetuses) and marking those who practice and support it for censure and ostracism.

Whatever the intent of the site, of course, some visitors may not be prepared to wait until "the tide of this nation's opinion turns against the wanton slaughter of God's children." Horsley-- who crosses off the names of abortionists when they are killed and asks, "Is it any wonder that people are driven to violence in the face of such injustice?"--does not exactly preach patience.

Similarly, the poster about Robert Crist offered a $500 reward to the group that "successfully persuades Crist to turn from child killing." What if persuasion doesn't work?

Another poster listed the names, addresses, and telephone numbers of 13 physicians, offering $5,000 "for information leading to arrest, conviction and revocation of license to practice medicine." Again, it is easy to imagine someone taking more direct action.

Yet we can hardly expect to have a robust debate about abortion (or any other issue) if speakers are held legally responsible for the actions of people inspired by their words. The very notion that abortion is murder--the crux of the controversy for many people--is unavoidably inflammatory.

Indeed, that premise seems to lead rather directly to the conclusions expressed by the defendants in this case: that force is justified to prevent abortion and that abortionists deserve to be punished. One needn't agree with those positions to recognize that the abortion debate would be incomplete without them.