A True Threat Is Not Free Speech


One of the failures of American journalism is that only a very few columnists, local or syndicated, take the health of the Bill of Rights—and the rest of the Constitution—as their beat.

That helps explain why so few Americans fully know their own rights and liberties, and therefore are indifferent or hostile to the rights of others.

Tony Lewis of The New York Times is an exception, but he wasted most of last year on his obsession with Kenneth Starr, repeating the same attacks over and over again. Bob Herbert has become the Times‘s most valuable columnist in this and other respects, and should get the Pulitzer Prize.

A columnist who focuses entirely on the pervasive violations of constitutional rights is Robyn Blumner of the St. Petersburg Times in Florida. She is syndicated and often appears in the New York Post.

I not only admire Robyn’s work, she is a friend of mine. I doubt if I have disagreed with her views more than twice. One such difference is over her characteristically vigorous objection to the $107 million in damages an Oregon jury recently imposed upon a group of pro-lifers. They had printed lists of doctors “wanted” for performing abortions on posters and a Web site.

The jury decided that those doctors had been threatened—with “true threats” in legal terms—and had reason to fear bodily harm, including death.

The names and addresses of 225 abortion doctors were posted on the Web site, and whenever one was murdered by an anti abortionist, a line was drawn through his or her name. One such name was that of Dr. Barnett Slepian in Buffalo.

Robyn writes consistently in favor of the right to abortion. She has also volunteered at abortion clinics to protect and support clients from insistent pro-life demonstrators.

But she believes the defendants in the Oregon case should have been acquitted
because only their expression in speech was
before the jury. She underlined the following line in her column: “No explicit threats of violence were at issue.”

What, she asks, does this guilty verdict mean “for the future of activism? Does it mean that Greenpeace can’t post a list of polluting companies’ CEOs? Does it mean that Nazi hunters can be barred from publishing the names of former Nazis who are living in this country?…In each instance, those named may feel physically threatened, and the publishers of their names could foresee that.”

Similar warnings that the Oregon verdict will greatly chill free speech have been advanced by other First Amendment experts. In a thoughtful column in the January 26 issue of the Eugene, Oregon, Register-Guard, Karen McGowan, who is for neither the pro-lifers nor the abortion doctors, seeing “blood on both their hands,” asks:

“Is it inciting violence to say that abortion kills babies? Some abortion rights activists already charge as much.” She is troubled that pro-lifers saying that might be sued.

On the other hand, there is the ACLU, which litigates many cases for abortion rights. Its executive director, Ira Glasser, noted in a February 17 letter to the Wall Street Journal:

“Extortionate threats or obscene, threatening middle-of-the-night telephone calls are not protected by the First Amendment.” Nor is “using threats to put people in fear for their lives.”

Robyn Blumner wrote in the February 10 Wall Street Journal that the words on the antiabortion Web site in Oregon were “no worse than neo-Nazi calls for the annihilation of the Jewish people.” But Ira Glasser answers: “It is one thing to say that all abortion providers deserve to die. It is quite another to publish detailed information on wanted posters about particular doctors—their photos, names, cars (with license plates), home addresses, names of children, where their children go to school, etc.—and then triumphantly cross out their names when particular doctors are killed.”

I am pro-life—as many Voice readers have indignantly pointed out, some of them shocked that I had not been fired a long time ago. I am also a supporter of free speech across the board—for Klan members, anti-Semites (including Farrakhan), and even such enemies of free speech and assembly as Rudolph Giuliani.

Caught between these two allegiances in the Oregon Web site case, I agree with the jury’s verdict that the posters and the Web site are not protected speech.

When the fact that she had been targeted on the Web site made a doctor believe that she had to wear a bulletproof vest, a true threat had been made against her. What else could she have thought when the names of murdered abortion doctors were indeed triumphantly crossed out on the Web site?

During the trial, one of the defendants, Andrew Burnett of the American Coalition of Life Activists, testified: “If I was an abortionist…I would be afraid….I believe abortion kills a human being. I also believe, as most Americans do, there’s such a thing as a justifiable homicide.”

Years ago, I received what I considered a credible death threat because of a column I’d written attacking the Israeli invasion of Lebanon that led to Lebanese children losing their legs and arms. I did not consider that threat to be protected by the First Amendment.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on May 25, 1999

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