Doctors' historic triumph over the Web of terror

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The Independent Online
THE OPERATORS of an Internet website that posts Wild West-style "wanted" posters of abortion doctors and puts a black line through the names of those killed by anti-abortion activists have been ordered to pay a record $107m (pounds 65.3m) in punitive damages after a United States federal court ruled that they posed a deadly threat to the safety of medical professionals.

The ruling, which raises important questions about the limits of free speech on the Internet, came at the end of a stormy three-week trial in Portland, Oregon, in which the anti-abortionists were accused of fomenting "domestic terrorism". Several doctors featured on the website testified that they and their families were in constant fear for their lives.

The website, called the Nuremberg Files because it believes abortion doctors should be tried for crimes against humanity, is full of intemperate language about "slaughter... that would have caused the Nazis to blanch" and graphic pictures of aborted foetuses "bagged like groceries destined for Satan's table".

Not only does it list more than 200 abortion doctors, whom it refers to as "baby butchers", it also invites supporters to send information about their addresses, telephone numbers, family status including names and ages of children, car licence-plate numbers, and so on. It offers rewards of up to $5,000 for information.

Seven doctors have been killed by anti-abortion activists in recent years. There have been 39 bombings of abortion clinics, 99 acid attacks and 16 attempted murders, according to the National Abortion Federation.

In the trial, one doctor from St Louis testified how gunshots were fired into his children's playroom after his name appeared on the website. Another, James Newhall of Portland, described how he had taught his six-year-old son to hide in the bath if he ever heard gunfire in the house. The prosecution team described how doctors had to vary their route to work each day and change cars and phone numbers regularly.

"The jury saw anti-choice `wanted' posters for what they are - a hit list for terrorists," Gloria Feldt, the president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said after the verdict was announced on Tuesday. "Whether these threats are posted on trees or on the Internet, their intent is the same: to threaten the lives of doctors who courageously serve women seeking to exercise their right to choose abortion."

The suit was prompted by the death of Barnett Slepian, a doctor from Amherst in upstate New York, who was shot by a sniper in the kitchen of his home last October. Like other victims of anti-abortionists, his name was crossed out on the Nuremberg Files website.

Far from condemning the Slepian killing, the website issued this provocative statement: "Those who slaughter God's children without affording them due process of law need to understand they are going to be held accountable."

Planned Parenthood mounted the suit along with a group of doctors and targeted a broad swathe of adversaries - not only 12 people they believe were responsible for the Internet messages but also two organisations championing them, the American Coalition of Life Activists and Advocates for Life Ministries.

The plan was not so much to close the website down as to cripple the finances of radical anti-abortion organisations through punitive damages. It worked triumphantly in one sense, since Tuesday's judgment was the biggest financial blow yet dealt to anti-abortion organisations.

But forcing the groups to hand over the money is likely to be highly complicated and subject to a lengthy appeals process. The defendants vowed that they would never hand over a single penny.

"I could not in good conscience give money to an industry that thrives on killing children," defendant Catherine Ramey said outside the courthouse. Other defendants said their finances were "judgment-proof", although they gave no details of what that meant. "We will continue to do what we've been doing," said Charles Wysong, head of the American Rights Coalition, whose personal assets are largely tied up in the upbringing of his 15 children.

The controversy over the case hinges on the interpretation of the First Amendment, which guarantees the right to free speech. According to previous Supreme Court rulings, published material constitutes a threat only if it is likely to cause an "imminent lawless action".

But in the Portland case, Judge Robert Jones directed the jury to use a lesser standard, saying the contents of the website should be deemed a threat if they could be interpreted that way by "a reasonable person" taking the context of the remarks into consideration.

"Any document that criticises an abortionist could now be construed as threatening," the main defence lawyer, Christopher Ferrara of the American Catholic Lawyers Association, complained. "And that has to alarm anyone who's concerned about the First Amendment."

During the trial, Mr Ferrara admitted that the website contained strong, even offensive, opinions, but said they did not amount to an incitement to violence. Even witnesses for the defence acknowledged, however, that abortion providers might feel intimidated by the campaign mounted against them. "If I was an abortionist, I would be afraid," said defendant Andrew Burnett, publisher of Life Advocate magazine.

There are signs that the atmosphere of intimidation is fast eroding the willingness of doctors to perform abortions. Roe vs Wade, the Supreme Court judgment that first legalised abortion in 1974, recognises the right of women to opt for the procedure but does not make it mandatory for hospitals or state institutions to provide it. With every attack, the number of facilities goes down, and pro-choice groups are concerned about large areas of the country - particularly in the Bible Belt south - where women have little or no access to abortion services.

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When free speech on the Internet intrudes on real life...

A software engineer from Shanghai, China, was sentenced to two years in prison last month for supplying a US-based dissident magazine with 30,000 mainland e-mail addresses. Lin Hai, 30, became the first known person to be punished in China in connection with dissent on the Internet.

In the first case filed under a new cyber-stalking law in California, Gary Dellapenta was arrested last month for allegedly impersonating a woman on the Internet and saying she fantasised about being raped. Six men arrived at her apartment.

Abu Hamza al-Masri, the Muslim cleric who leads the London-based Supporters of Shariah, used the group's website to advertise an "Islamic Camp" at a mosque in Finsbury Park over Christmas. The site urged young Muslims to rise up and "defend" themselves.

In 1997 a High Court injunction banned the publication on the Internet of a child abuse report by police and social services at Nottinghamshire County Council. The injunction failed to prevent other people putting the information on their own websites. The document was a summary of the official inquiry report into a child abuse scandal in Nottingham in 1988. The High Court was told that publication on the Internet breached its copyright.