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Abortion foes lose free-speech claim as racketeering verdict upheld

By The Associated Press

10.03.01

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CHICAGO — Abortion-rights forces won a key victory yesterday as a federal appeals court panel upheld a jury's finding that organizers of clinic demonstrations across the country had violated an anti-racketeering law.

The 33-page opinion written by Judge Diane P. Wood for the three-judge appeals panel brushed aside claims by Operation Rescue, the Pro-Life Action League and three anti-abortion organizers that they were merely exercising freedom of speech.

The opinion from the panel of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the defendants, including Pro-Life Action League Director Joseph Scheidler and activists Andrew D. Scholberg and Timothy Murphy, had gone beyond free speech.

"Protesters trespassed on clinic property and blocked access to clinics with their bodies, including at times chaining themselves in the doorways of clinics or to operating tables," the opinion said.

"At other times, protesters destroyed clinic property, including putting glue in clinic door locks and destroying medical equipment used to perform abortions," it said. "On still other occasions, protesters physically assaulted clinic staff and patients."

The jury's 1998 verdict capped what was then a 13-year battle by the National Organization for Women and abortion clinics in Milwaukee, Wis., and Wilmington, Del., to combat what they described as violent tactics on the part of a national network of anti-abortion organizers.

Following the verdict, U.S. District Judge David Coar issued an order barring the defendants from trespassing, setting up blockades or behaving in violent fashion at abortion clinics for the next 10 years. He also imposed damages of $257,780.

In Washington, NOW President Kim Gandy said that the decision upholding the nationwide injunction would safeguard access to clinics and protect the clinics themselves from "violence and intimidation."

"At a time when the country is still reeling from large-scale international terrorism, we have won another victory in the long fight against domestic terrorism at abortion clinics," she said.

NOW attorney Fay Clayton, who filed the original lawsuit in 1986 and has been battling the anti-abortion forces in the courts ever since, hailed the appeals decision as a landmark in the abortion-rights cause.

"It seems so foolish that we would be having a debate over whether these childish, cruel, nasty tactics would go on under our system of government," she said after reading the decision yesterday.

After losing with the three-judge panel, the defendants plan to ask for reconsideration from the entire appeals court, Scheidler said. If that fails, they will go to the U.S. Supreme Court, he said.

"Our so-called foolish tactics are to talk a woman out of killing her baby," Scheidler said. "She (Clayton) may think it's foolish but we intend to keep right on doing it."

Update

High court to hear appeal from anti-abortion protesters
Justices will review whether lower courts went too far in applying the federal Racketeer Influenced Corrupt Organizations Act to anti-abortion activities.  04.22.02

Previous

Protests will go on, anti-abortion groups vow after courtroom loss
'The decision in this case effectively equates freedom of speech with racketeering,' says Catholic official.  04.21.98

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