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.
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 weve done, and all really
anybodys 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 dont understand what the
First Amendments 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 wasnt 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
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 Courts 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
Georgias Planned Parenthood President Kay Scott says, We believe this
site was organized explicitly to promote violence and harassment. I dont
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
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
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 jurys 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 judges instructions to consider context in the jurys
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
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.
2 ACLU Foundation of Oregon Amicus Curiae. ACLU. Accessed on: 11 Mar.
3 Hogenson, Scott. Nuremberg Files Returns to Internet. Conservative
News Service. 24 Feb. 1999. Accessed on: 8 Mar. 1999.
4 Lafferty, Elaine. Ruling Against Anti-Abortion Website Raises Storm in
US Over Rights. The Irish Times. 4 Feb. 1999:14. Nexis.
6 Zremski, Jerry. Anti-Abortion Radical Fringe Considers Doctors
Coldblooded Killing Justifiable. The Buffalo News. 26 Oct. 1998:1A.
7 Viele, Lawrence. Murder or Free Speech? Web Site Wont Back Down in
Abortion Site. 8 Feb. 1999. Law News Network. Accessed on: 11 Mar.