Hot on the Web
Lost in Cyberspace
Online San Diego
Feature Articles
Book Reviews and Reading Diary
Music Reviews
Favorite quotates
Contact Me

Free speech restored

Hot on the Web

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on May 4, 2001
(Issue 1918, Online Tools)

It turns out that maybe, just maybe, the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech isn't as endangered online as it once appeared.

While free speech online has been under attack from abroad almost since the Internet was first made public in the late '80s, a jury decision two years ago to punish anti-abortion activists for using a Web site to identify doctors who perform abortions was the most serious restriction of online speech since President Clinton signed the ill-fated Communications Decency Act.

Fortunately for the ability of citizens to freely speak their minds online, the above restriction has now been tossed out. (The Supreme Court almost immediately struck the CDA down as unconstitutional.) A federal appeals court has unanimously overturned a lower court verdict against the creators of The Nuremberg Files web site. Planned Parenthood had sued the activists who hosted the site, claiming it was a form of terrorism. The trial jury agreed, and awarded Planned Parenthood more than $100 million in damages.

United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

You'll need the free Adobe Acrobat plugin to view the decision here. Find it by going to the Opinions link off the home page, then 2001>March>28. The case is called Planned Parenthood vs. American Coalition of Life Activists.


To see a plain HTML version of this decision, you can go to Go to Federal Resources>Judicial Branch>Courts of Appeal>Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Opinions. From here, you can enter the case number (9935320) into the Docket Number search to bring up the court's decision.

Planned Parenthood

For the first few days after the above decision, Planned Parenthood's web site was strangely silent. They have now posted a two-paragraph response to the court describing their "outrage."

National Abortion Rights Action League

While usually more vociferous than Planned Parenthood in defending legalized abortion, NARAL's site is unusually subdued in their response to the Nuremberg Files reversal. Where Planned Parenthood is "outraged," NARAL is merely "concerned."

National Right to Life Committee

Wow – absolute silence from NLRC, the largest of the anti-abortion organizations. One would think they might have something to say about a decision that affects the ability of folks to voice their opposition to abortion – no matter what NLRC thinks about the idiots behind the Nuremberg Files.

Pro-Lifers Against Clinic Violence

Not a movement you'll read about in the mainstream media, which can sell more papers by portraying all pro-lifers as frothing maniacs. But this site has been up for a while and sponsors a banner program to try to encourage anti-abortion sites to display an anti-violence message.

Nowhere on the anti-abortion web site in question – called The Nuremberg Files – did the authors advocate specific acts of terrorism or murder. Both sides in the lawsuit agreed on that point. It did refer to those who perform abortions as "butchers" and argued passionately that they areguilty of crimes against humanity – calling for an international tribunal to try them on such charges, a la the Nuremberg trials held after World War II to try Nazi war criminals.

What Planned Parenthood seemed to object to was the listing of the names and addresses of those who perform abortions. Given the spate of murder and attempted murder against abortion providers, Planned Parenthood argued that listing their addresses was tantamount to aiding and abetting in their assassination (which is what politically motivated murder really is).

Now, whatever one's position on abortion, what was patently clear to free speech activists was that if the original verdict were held up, controversial speech across the political spectrum would take a vicious beating.

If calling abortion providers "baby butchers" could be made illegal, it wouldn't take much more to get a jury to find all kinds of speech illegal. The belief of some animal rights activists that eating meat is murder could be considered terrorism against hunters or farmers – or anyone who stops by McDonald's on the way home. Those who oppose the death penalty would have to be wary of denouncing the practice as "state-sponsored murder" or risk having themselves sued by wardens and prison guard unions.

Or to flip the issue completely on its head, we could see massive fines against pro-choice activists who argue that extreme pro-life rhetoric leads to murder against abortion providers. Terrorism against pro-lifers, right? After all, if we call people murderers because we don't agree with their position on abortion, well, that might encourage unstable members of our movement to lose control and go kill the opposition.

It's a ludicrous argument, and the shame of it all is that a trial judge bought into it.

While Planned Parenthood promises to appeal, recent Supreme Court rulings in favor of free speech – rulings the appellate court deferred to in its unanimous decision – have held that speech can only be banned (or punished, as in this case, which was in civil court) if it is clearly a threat and likely to have the result of "imminent lawless action."

The Nuremberg Files were clearly in poor taste and utterly lacking in the Christian charity they claimed as the basis for their message.

But what The Nuremberg Files were not was illegal – and for that, all of us who believe in an unfettered and lively Internet should thank the judges on the appeals court.