Protesters Aren't Racketeers, Supreme Court Rules

Susan Jones and David Thibault | Staff | Wednesday, February 26, 2003

Protesters Aren't Racketeers, Supreme Court Rules (2nd Add: Includes reaction from National Abortion Federation and Center for Reproductive Rights)
( - Pro-life groups Wednesday cheered a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that prohibits the use of federal anti-racketeering law to be used in the prosecution of pro-life protesters or any other protesters.

The 8-to-1 ruling is considered a victory for protesters of all stripes, although the case involved members of the Pro Life Action Network and Operation Rescue who were convicted in 1998 under a racketeering law known as RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations).

According to wire reports, the Supreme Court ruled that pro-lifers' political activity could not be considered the type of extortion that RICO prohibits.

The original case dated all the way back to 1986. The 1998 convictions occurred after numerous delays.

The case ended up in the Supreme Court because the trial court had allowed prosecutors to link various violent acts committed by other anti-abortion protesters to the demonstrations conducted by members of the Pro Life Action Network and Operation Rescue. The Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the trial court decision. The case was then appealed to the Supreme Court.

Writing for the majority of the high court, Chief Justice William Rehnquist agreed that the pro-life protesters interfered with abortion clinic operations. "But," he wrote, "Even when their acts of interference and disruption achieved their ultimate goal of 'shutting down' a clinic that performed abortions, such acts did not constitute extortion."

The American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) provided legal services to Operation Rescue in the case. The RICO law was "designed to combat drug dealers and organized crime," the center stated in a news release, and "was wrongly used against the pro-life movement."

"The decision removes a cloud that has been hanging over the pro-life movement for 15 years," according to the ACLJ.

The Rutherford Institute, which also argued in favor of the pro-life movement in its friend of the court brief, called it "the most significant pro-life protest case to come before the court in years."

"The Supreme Court's near-unanimous decision gives breathing room for the First Amendment-protected speech of many political groups that have been virtually shut out of public debate because of threats of huge fines like those imposed on these protesters," according to institute president John W. Whitehead.

Concerned Women for America president Sandy Rios also praised the high court's ruling, declaring that, "pro-life activists are not mobsters."

"The Supreme Court has set the record straight on the time-honored American tradition of the right to protest," Rios said.

Family Research Council president Ken Connor said "acts of violence directed at abortion clinics, abortionists or women seeking abortions are wrong and already against the law." As a result, Connor said, the RICO law should not be targeted at pro-lifers. "What NOW (National Organization for Women) and other pro-abortion groups want to do is threaten pro-lifers with financial ruin in order to silence debate," he added.

Gloria Feldt, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, expressed disappointment at the verdict, but vowed to "not allow it to be a green light for anti-choice terrorists."

"Planned Parenthood will use the federal Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act (FACE) and every other legal tool to protect our patients, staff and volunteers from harassment and terrorism," Feldt stated. "We remain steadfast in our commitment to every woman's human and civil right to make her own decisions about childbearing."

Pro-life activists should not read more into the Supreme Court verdict than what exists, according to National Abortion Federation president Vicki Saporta.

"This decision does not give anti-choice protesters and extremists the right to commit illegal or criminal activity outside reproductive health care clinics," Saporta said.

The access of women to abortion clinics should also be unaffected by Wednesday's ruling, stated the Center for Reproductive Rights, "so long as federal and state authorities enforce FACE vigorously."

However, the center maintains the 1986 prosecution of the pro-life demonstrators was warranted.
\sb100\sa100"Seventeen years ago ... groups like the Pro-Life Action Network were terrorizing women and abortion providers through massive blockades and other criminal activities designed to prevent women from obtaining reproductive health services, including abortions," the Center for Reproductive Rights stated. The lawsuit was "absolutely critical to efforts to stop these criminal enterprises."

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See Earlier Story:
\sb100\sa100 Justices Express Concern for Free Speech in Pro-Life RICO Case

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