Feminists, Racketeers, and the First Amendment

Feminists, Racketeers, and the First Amendment

First Amendment freedoms are inevitably invoked by provocateurs and dissenters seeking to change or complain about the status quo, so it’s not surprising that anti-abortion protesters have discovered free speech. After abortion was legalized and normalized in the early 1970s, pro-choicers suddenly had the law on their side, and pro-fetal-life advocates began adopting the tactics of earlier protest movements. Picketing abortion clinics and conducting sit-ins, they likened themselves to civil rights activists of the 1950s and 1960s.

This analogy broke down when radicals in the anti-abortion movement turned from civil disobedience to violence, in addition to protests that bordered on criminal harassment of women seeking entry into abortion clinics. The enraged activists who organize clinic blockades resemble the segregationists who surrounded Little Rock’s Central High School in 1956 much more than the besieged African-American students trying to enter the school. Many anti-abortion activists today are not only engaged in loud or angry speech. The arsenal of their movement includes clinic invasions, assaults on clinic workers, bombings, and the shootings of obstetricians. Shortly after the October 1998 murder of Dr. Barnett Slepian (the seventh practitioner killed), the FBI warned dozens of other doctors that an anti-abortion Web site was distributing detailed information about them and their families. Abortion providers have taken to wearing bulletproof vests; a Planned Parenthood clinic in Boston, site of a fatal shooting in 1994, operates behind bulletproof glass.

As some anti-abortion activists have turned toward violence, crossing the line between protected speech and criminal conduct with increasing frequency, conflicts about speech and abortion rights have increased. Not that distinctions between speech and conduct are always self-evident: people opposed to abortion have fundamental rights to rally or picket outside abortion clinics, to accuse women of killing their babies, or to exhort them to consider adoption instead. They don’t have the right to block the path of women seeking to enter clinics, as many do. The Supreme Court has upheld injunctions prohibiting protests directly outside the entrances to two abortion clinics that had been targeted by highly intrusive protesters. In one case, Schenck v. Pro-Choice Network of Western New York, a lower court found evidence of “physical obstruction, intimidation, harassment, crowding, grabbing, and screaming,” which continued even after the issuance of a temporary restraining order and made it impossible for police to ensure clinic access.

Feeling under the gun, quite literally, many pro-choice advocates cheered the April 1998 verdict in NOW v. Scheidler, a landmark civil action for extortion brought by the National Organization for Women (NOW) against several militant leaders of the radical anti-abortion movement and their organizations. NOW suc...