The Portland Trial

It was a hit list. Threatening speech: pure and simple.

Boiled down to its essence, that was what a Portland, Ore. jury decided Feb. 2, when it ordered designers of an anti-abortion website and two leading pro-life organizations to pay $107.9 million in punitive damages.

The site, called "The Nuremberg Files: Visualize Abortionists on Trial," featured images of mangled fetal body parts, bordered by dripping blood. Amid the gore, the site published a directory of 225 doctors who perform abortions complete with addresses, license plate numbers and information about doctors' families.

Four doctors have lines through their names to show they have been killed. A line had been drawn through Barnett A. Slepian's name just hours after the Buffalo, N.Y. doctor was fatally shot by a sniper in his home in October. The luckier ones -- those who have been wounded -- have their names grayed out.

"Just like bounty hunters of the Old West, the defendants want to stop the doctors by any means -- dead in their tracks," plaintiffs' Attorney Maria Vullo told the court. "It's terrorism."

Jurors took three days to decide the tactics used on the site were violence inducing and would cause "reasonable person(s)" to fear for their safety.

The multi-million-dollar judgement the jury returned with is the largest financial blow that has been dealt to anti-abortion organizations.

The civil suit, which was filed in 1995 by four abortionists, the Planned Parenthood Federation of America and the Portland Feminist Women's Health Center, marked a series of firsts.

It was the first case brought under the 1994 Federal Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, which makes it illegal to use "force or threat of force" against anyone seeking or providing an abortion. The case marked the first time, and will certainly not be the last time, the country has witnessed the head-on collision between two notoriously spicy issues: abortion and free speech. Here, the court was forced to decide upon the effect "virtual threat" can have upon people's lives.

Doctors' testimony revealed how real, tangible the threat had become. They testified that they had begun wearing bullet-proof vests, varying their route to work every day and constantly changing home phone numbers.

Defense attorneys in the case have argued that the charges against their clients are weak. They contend that while the Nuremberg Files site contains strong political statements, graphic images and personal information, the subject matter does not condone or promote illegal behavior. Thus, their clients were acting well within their First Amendment expression rights.

"This is a case about the threat to kill or injure, which is simply not there," lead defense Attorney Chris Ferrara told the jury at the start of the trial.

After the decision was handed down, Ferrara said the judgement will be a harsh blow to political protest.


"Any document that criticizes an abortionist could now be construed as threatening," he said. "And that has to alarm anyone who's concerned about the First Amendment."

The plan, the plaintiffs said after the trial, was not to completely shut down the site, but monetarily handicap the organizations and pro-lifers who had taken expression to a frightening level.

"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 have an abortion," said Gloria Feldt, president of the national chapter of Planned Parenthood.


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PRO-WEBSITE EDITORIAL
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E-mail me: rumabuma@ufl.edu