The Court Case

Offending Materials

Context Surrounding the Decision



The Court Case

The Planned Parenthood suit was filed in the U.S. District Court in Portland, Oregon on October 26th 1995. The complaint alleges that the defendants, including the American Coalition of Life Activists (ACLA), have waged a campaign of terror and intimidation and have distributed “wanted” style posters that target specific abortion providers in a violent life-threatening manner. Along with the posters, there is a Web site listing personal information about the doctors and their families. The issue that is of interest to the on-line community is the following question: Does publicizing the names of doctors violate a federal law designed to protect access to abortion clinics? The answer to this question has widespread implications for anyone posting material to the World Wide Web, since it attempts to draw the line between protected and unprotected free speech.

The law in question is the 1994 Federal Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act. This act lists as a prohibited activity: whoever “by force or threat of force... intentionally injures, intimidates or interferes with or attempts to injure, intimidate or interfere with...” anyone seeking or providing an abortion.1 The duty of the jury in Planned Parenthood v. ACLA was to decide whether or not the defendants have illegally used the threat of force against abortion providers.

Offending Materials

Wanted style posters had been distributed by the ACLA containing a large heading that states: “GUILTY of Crimes Against Humanity.” The posters list the names, addresses and phone numbers of twelve people, labeled “THE DEADLY DOZEN,” including a few of the plaintiffs. The posters offer a $5000 reward for “information leading to arrest, conviction and revocation of license to practice medicine.”2 When they were brought to the attention of the FBI in 1995, the listed doctors were offered around-the-clock federal marshall protection and were advised to wear bulletproof vests and take other precautionary measures. Similar posters were created and distributed that targeted single individuals.

In January 1997, Neal Horsley created the “Nuremberg Files” Web site. This Web site became one of the central issues of the court case. It brings to light the potential problems of free speech on the Internet, which is a medium unlike any in the past. The Internet can disperse information to millions of people very quickly and very easily. See our section about extremists on the internet for more information about the changes the Internet brings about for extremist groups. The Nuremberg Files started as a project of the ACLA, but it was Horsley who put the information onto the World Wide Web. The site distributes personal information about over 200 abortion providers, including names, family members, addresses, photos and in some cases criminal and civil suit records. The plaintiffs argue that this information is presented in such a way that constitutes actual threats to the doctors’ lives and safety. The defendants claim they are protected by freedom of speech. Horsley states, “All we’ve done, and all really anybody’s accused us of doing, is printing factually verifiable information... If the First Amendment does not allow a publisher to publish factually verifiable information, then I don’t understand what the First Amendment’s about.”3 Horsley has stated that his intention in creating the site was to gather and disseminate information and that he had no intention to cause any harm to the people listed on the site. He believes that in the future abortion will become illegal, and when it does Horsley does not want doctors to escape punishment because of lack of evidence, as happened with some Nazi war criminals. The full title of the site is “The Nuremberg Files: Visualize Abortionists on Trial.”

Planned Parenthood v. ACLA was not originally directed at the Nuremberg Files Web site. The site wasn’t created until after the suit was filed, and Neal Horsley is not named as a defendant. Although the information on the site was originally collected by the ACLA and the ACLA is a defendant in the case, Horsley stopped attributing the files to this organization when members objected to his links to gay pornography on the Nuremberg Files page. At the start, plaintiffs had alleged that the defendants were conspiring to threaten and intimidate abortion providers by using wanted posters. The Web site was added to the list of offending materials during pre-trial discovery.


Context Surrounding the Decision

Planned Parenthood v. ACLA went to court on January 8th, 1999. At first glance, this may seem like an open and shut case. It seems that the defendants were exercising their Constitutional right to freedom of speech. The Supreme Court’s basic standard is that speech is protected unless it is directed toward a specific group of people and likely to produce “imminent lawless action.” The Nuremberg Files Web site does not explicitly threaten violence to any one person, but it does provide potentially life-threatening information to any radical anti-abortionists looking for a target. This became important evidence for the jury, because the judge granted the jury permission to evaluate the site in the context of the growing trend of violence against abortion providers. Seven doctors performing abortions have been killed since 1977. There have been approximately 16 attempted murders, 99 acid attacks, 153 arson incidents and 39 bombings in the last two decades.4 See http://www.prochoice.org/violence/98vd.html for a comprehensive listing of anti-abortion violence. On the Web site, the names of abortion providers who have died are struck out and the names of those who have been injured are grayed out. Dr. Barnett Slepian is one of the doctors listed. Last fall, just hours after Slepian was shot to death by a sniper in his home, his name was struck out on the page. Horsley claims he had no prior knowledge of the event, and only crossed off the name after seeing a TV report. In light of these events, although any threats are not explicitly stated it seems reasonable that the doctors who are named on the site or on the posters feel threatened.

Other context that was considered in deciding the case includes the Web site itself. The information provided on the site is surrounded by radical anti-abortion opinions. The site states that abortion providers are committing a crime against humanity, and should be punished. The image of dripping blood tops the page, followed by pictures of aborted fetuses and proclamations of hatred and damnation for abortion providers. There is a solicitation for more information on doctors, to help in “collecting dossiers on abortionists in anticipation that one day we may be able to hold them on trial for crimes against humanity.”5 The page contains links to several other radical anti-abortion sites, some of which declare that the murder of abortion providers is legally, morally and religiously justifiable. Another link brings the user to the site of death row inmate Paul Hill, who was convicted of shooting an abortion provider and his accomplice. At his site is an essay by Hill titled “Why I Shot an Abortionist.” The essay states that Hill has no remorse for his actions and describes the euphoria he experienced after committing the crime. He writes, “It was unpleasant for me to have to kill two human beings -- even though one was a murderer and the other his accomplice. But the privilege of being used to save innocent children continues to change this unpleasantness into joy.”6

The suit alleges a direct connection between defendants’ activities and specific attacks and threats on abortion providers. The state of Georgia’s Planned Parenthood President Kay Scott says, “We believe this site was organized explicitly to promote violence and harassment. I don’t think that was the premise of the First amendment.”7 In fact, defendants on the stand have indicated that “creating a sense of fear and intimidation, even terror, among the abortion providers named in the posters was precisely the intent of those who prepared or distributed the wanted-style posters.” Defendants have stated their belief that distributing information about doctors who provide abortions instills fear, and they hope that this fear will encourage doctors to stop providing abortions.8


The judge asked jurors to determine whether a reasonable person would consider abortion providers’ names and faces on a wanted poster or the Nuremberg site a threat of bodily harm as prohibited under the federal clinic-access law.

The jury found for the plaintiffs and awarded over $100 million dollars. The judge ruled that the court did not have jurisdiction to shut down the Nuremberg Files site, but the original service provider, MindSpring, elected to refuse service for the site. MindSpring claims the site violates the proper-use agreement with its clients, and states, “We are interpreting the site as threatening and harassing.”9 For more information about Internet Service Providers’ role in censorship, see our section on ISP censorship.

The jury’s decision is not without controversy. Free speech advocates are skeptical of the outcome. Paul McMasters, a member of a Northern Virginia free-speech advocacy organization, believes that the standard was set lower by the judge’s instructions to consider context in the jury’s decision. McMasters states, “No one would like to be in the place of the doctors who are living the way they have to live their lives, but the verdict has significant implications for all kinds of other speech.”10 He also maintains that the verdict has a good chance of being overturned in appeal.

On September 22, 1998, the American Civil Liberties Union defined what should legally constitute a threat in a “friend of the court” brief for this trial. See our legal analysis of the case for more information about the definition of an illegal threat. However, the ACLU plans to join in an appeal, claiming that the verdict impinges on the First Amendment guarantee of free speech. The ACLU believes the standards to limit speech entail more than a mere threat, but must show clear evidence that there exists intent to carry out the threat.

This case highlights the issue of where to draw the line between protected speech and unprotected speech, and attempts to carry it into a modern and as of yet undefined arena, using archaic laws that were written before the Internet was even imagined. The debate concerning free speech and the Internet is only beginning.

1 “Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act (FACE).” National Abortion Federation. Accessed on: 11 Mar. 1999. http://www.prochoice.org/violence/facetext.htm

2 “ACLU Foundation of Oregon Amicus Curiae.” ACLU. Accessed on: 11 Mar. 1999. http://www.aclu-or.org/aclu/ppbrief.htm

3 Hogenson, Scott. “Nuremberg Files Returns to Internet.” Conservative News Service. 24 Feb. 1999. Accessed on: 8 Mar. 1999. http://www.conservativenews.org/indepth/ archive/199902/IND19990224d.html

4 Lafferty, Elaine. “Ruling Against Anti-Abortion Website Raises Storm in US Over Rights.” The Irish Times. 4 Feb. 1999:14. Nexis.

5 Ibid.

6 Zremski, Jerry. “Anti-Abortion Radical Fringe Considers Doctor’s Coldblooded Killing Justifiable.” The Buffalo News. 26 Oct. 1998:1A. Nexis.

7 Viele, Lawrence. “Murder or Free Speech? Web Site Won’t Back Down in Abortion Site.” 8 Feb. 1999. Law News Network. Accessed on: 11 Mar. 1999. http://www.lawnewsnetwork.com/stories/feb/e020899h.html

8 Ibid.

9 Ibid.

10 Ibid.