ACLU Reacts to Verdict in Planned Parenthood "Wanted Posters" Case

February 2, 1999 12:00 am

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ACLU Reacts to Verdict in Planned Parenthood “Wanted Posters” Case

Statement of David Fidanque
Executive Director, ACLU of Oregon

Tuesday, February 2, 1999

PORTLAND — We view the jury’s verdict as a clarion call to remove violence and the threat of violence from the political debate over abortion. Many Americans disagree about the wisdom and morality of abortion. But violence and the threat of violence against providers of abortion services should not be allowed to determine the outcome of that debate.

The ACLU of Oregon believes that the safety of the physicians and clinic workers who provide abortion services can be protected without compromising the fundamental protections of free speech guaranteed by the First Amendment. Our involvement as a friend of the court in this case has been designed to help the court find the appropriate line between protected and unprotected speech under our Constitution. We will continue to play that role as this case moves forward.

The next task before the court will be to consider the plaintiffs’ request for a permanent injunction. We believe that any injunction issued must be specific and narrowly tailored in order to comply with constitutional protections of free speech while still preventing the issuance of any new threats by these defendants.

Prior to trial, we argued that the Court should have adopted a stricter constitutional standard in this case to distinguish between unlawful threats and protected speech. We still believe the jury should have been asked to determine whether the evidence showed that the defendants intended to threaten these abortion providers.

The Court felt constrained by the current Ninth Circuit standard for analyzing threats and directed the jury to determine whether a reasonable person issuing the “wanted” posters in this case would have known that those named in the posters would feel threatened. The difference between the Ninth Circuit standard and the ACLU of Oregon’s position–that the defendants’ intent to threaten the abortion providers must also be proven–is a subtle, but important, distinction.

This decision will almost certainly be appealed to the Ninth Circuit, and it may eventually reach the U.S. Supreme Court. The standard which is finally adopted in this case will apply in many future cases and must be carefully drawn both to safeguard against any chilling effect on free speech while still preventing the First Amendment from being used as a shield by those who make true threats of violence. Assuming the verdict is appealed, we will review the trial record closely prior to filing a brief which addresses these issues in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

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