Abortion Foes' Internet Site on Trial
By Rene Sanchez
Crist, like a few hundred other doctors across the country who perform abortions, had become a target of The Nuremberg Files. It is an Internet site produced by radical abortion opponents and its motives and messages are at the heart of an unusual trial unfolding here in a federal courtroom.
The case, in which doctors are suing the site on the grounds that it incites violence, is a key new test of the limits of free speech on the Internet and is being closely watched by both sides of the national battle over abortion. It marks one of the first times a 1994 federal law created to protect abortion providers is being invoked even without evidence of direct confrontations or threats.
The site publishes the names, photos, home addresses and license plate numbers of doctors. It calls them "baby butchers," suggests stalking them and identifies some of their spouses and children. Doctors who have been murdered have a line crossed through their names.
Those who run the site say they intend no harm and are merely collecting data on doctors in the hope that one day that it will help them be prosecuted for "crimes against humanity." But doctors suing to have the government shut down the site call it a hit list.
More than a dozen defendants from across the country are part of the suit. Among them is Michael Bray, a minister from Bowie who has spent time in prison for setting fire to abortion clinics and whose book, "A Time to Kill," suggests that killing doctors who perform abortions could be morally justified. The American Coalition of Life Advocates, based in Portland, is also on trial.
All week here, defense attorneys have argued that the charges against their clients are flimsy. They contend that even though The Nuremberg Files contains strong political statements, graphic images and personal information about doctors, nothing about it advocates violence. Thus, they say, it is a form of free speech clearly protected by the First Amendment.
"This is a case about the threat to kill or injure, which is simply not there," defense attorney Chris Ferrara told the jury at the start of the trial.
Other First Amendment specialists also say that making the case to ban the antiabortion Web site and award damages to the plaintiffs, who are seeking $200 million, could be difficult. The standard the Supreme Court has set for limiting free speech in these circumstances -- threats likely to create "imminent lawless action" -- is high.
"It's rare that textual material has reached that threshold, because by its nature reading is reflective," said Michael Godwin, a lawyer for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which focuses on free speech cases involving the Internet. "There's no constitutional right in this country not to be scared, and I can see why these doctors are, but there is a right to express hateful, even frightening thoughts."
Still, resolving the case may be trickier than that point. Attorneys for the doctors and for Planned Parenthood, which is part of the suit, contend that the site's messages must be judged in the context of events surrounding them.
The Nuremberg Files" is an illegal threat, they are arguing in court, because it is produced by people who support killing doctors who perform abortions and it exists in a climate of growing violence against clinics. The attorneys also claim that the style and substance of the Web site implicitly encourages readers to threaten or harm doctors.
For example, after Barnett Slepian was killed in upstate New York by sniper fire on Oct. 23, his name appeared with a line through it on the Web site. Other doctors wounded in recent years are shaded in gray.
"Certainly the strongly implied message here is to go after these doctors by any means necessary," said Sandi Hansen, the executive director of the Oregon chapter of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League. "This site should have a responsibility not to yell 'fire' in a crowded movie theater. What they're doing goes beyond free speech. It's a form of terrorism."
So far, the trial, which is expected to last two more weeks, is proceeding quietly. U.S. District Judge Robert E. Jones has imposed a "gag" order on participants, and on the street there are no signs of protest. But the mood is still tense. Security is tight in the courtroom, where bitter enemies sit a few yards apart, and parking along the perimeter of the high-rise courthouse has been banned.
The Nuremberg Files was created two years ago by Neal Horsley, an antiabortion activist and computer consultant in Georgia. Its name is a reference to the city in Germany where Nazi leaders were tried after World War II.
Horsley has said that the only point of the Web site is to gather information on doctors for political protests against abortion and for a possible trial. Even though abortion is legal, Horsley and others who support the site say that if it is ever outlawed, doctors performing abortions now can be held accountable for their actions later.
In their suit, doctors call that claim preposterous.
When asked if he knew abortion was legal and that the alleged point of the Web site may be moot, Andrew Burnett, publisher of Life Advocate Magazine and a defendant in the case, replied: "I understand that, but I also understand world history. Many times there have been people who have done things so bad that governments have imposed sanctions anyway."
Burnett also conceded in court testimony this week that doctors may have reason to fear the Web site because of the extent of antiabortion violence across the country. "If I was an abortionist, I would be afraid," he said.
More than 200 doctors are listed on The Nuremberg Files, as are scores of clinic owners and workers, judges and politicians who support the right to abortion. The site provides photos and detailed personal information on what it terms "The Dirty Dozen," doctors nationwide who perform abortions frequently. Seeking to complete their dossiers on other physicians, it asks for data on "their car, their house, their friends."
Some antiabortion groups have distanced themselves from The Nuremberg Files because of this kind of content.
In testimony this week, doctors have spent hours explaining how terrified they are of the Web site. Elizabeth Newhall, a physician in Portland, said that after her name appeared, she began wearing wigs to hide her identity. "Suddenly, I feel real visible to individuals who might not be quite balanced," she said.
Warren Hern, a doctor in Colorado who has had shots fired at his clinic, said he is wary of talking to strangers anymore and always sits with his back to a wall in public places. Crist, of St. Louis, wore a bulletproof vest on the stand and testified that he has spent thousands of dollars on home-security devices.
"I need relief from the threats, harassment and the feeling that my death can be imminent," Crist told jurors Wednesday.
Defense attorneys have countered by saying that much of the information on The Nuremberg Files is available from government or medical listings. They also have accused some doctors of exaggerating their fears of the Web site to help abortion-rights organizations silence legitimate protests.
Because of the gag order, the doctors can only answer what they're asked in court. But other physicians in Portland are rallying to their defense. "This case may be very tough to prove because of free speech," said Sig-Linda Jacobson, who specializes in treating high-risk pregnancies. "But it's still frightening. Doctors don't fear harassment from this. They fear getting shot."
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