Excerpts from the opinion in Planned Parenthood of the Columbia/Willamette Inc. v. American Coalition of Life Activists
Kozinski, Circuit Judge:
Anti-abortion activists intimidated abortion providers by publishing their names and addresses. A jury awarded more than $ 100 million in actual and punitive damages against the activists, and the district court enjoined their speech. We consider whether such speech is protected by the First Amendment.
During a 1995 meeting called to mark the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113, 35 L. Ed. 2d 147, 93 S. Ct. 705 (1973), the American Coalition of Life Activists (ACLA) unveiled a poster listing the names and addresses of the "Deadly Dozen," a group of doctors who perform abortions. In large print, the poster declared them guilty of "crimes against humanity" and offered $ 5,000 for information leading to the "arrest, conviction and revocation of license to practice medicine." The poster was later published in an affiliated magazine, Life Advocate, and distributed at ACLA events.
Later that year, in front of the St. Louis federal courthouse, ACLA presented a second poster, this time targeting Dr. Robert Crist. The poster accused Crist of crimes against humanity and various acts of medical malpractice, including a botched abortion that caused the death of a woman. Like the Deadly Dozen List, the poster included Crist's home and work addresses, and in addition, featured his photograph. The poster offered $500 to "any ACLA organization that successfully persuades Crist to turn from his child killing through activities within ACLA guidelines" (which prohibit violence).
In January 1996, at its next Roe anniversary event, ACLA unveiled a series of dossiers it had compiled on doctors, clinic employees, politicians, judges and other abortion rights supporters. ACLA dubbed these the "Nuremberg Files," and announced that it had collected the pictures, addresses and other information in the files so that Nuremberg-like war crimes trials could be conducted in "perfectly legal courts once the tide of this nation's opinion turns against the wanton slaughter of God's children." ACLA sent hard copies of the files to Neal Horsley, an anti-abortion activist, who posted the information on a website. The website listed the names of doctors and others who provide or support abortion and called on visitors to supply additional names. The website marked the names of those already victimized by anti-abortion terrorists, striking through the names of those who had been murdered and graying out the names of the wounded. Although ACLA's name originally appeared on the website, Horsley removed it after the initiation of this lawsuit.
Neither the posters nor the website contained any explicit threats against the doctors. But the doctors knew that similar posters prepared by others had preceded clinic violence in the past. By publishing the names and addresses, ACLA robbed the doctors of their anonymity and gave violent anti-abortion activists the information to find them. The doctors responded to this unwelcome attention by donning bulletproof vests, drawing the curtains on the windows of their homes and accepting the protection of U.S. Marshals.
Some of the doctors went on the offensive. Along with two Portland-based health centers, the doctors sued ACLA, twelve activists and an affiliated organization, alleging that their threatening statements violated state and federal law, including the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act of 1994 (FACE), 18 U.S.C. § 248. Because the doctors claimed they were harmed by defendants' speech, the district court instructed the jury that defendants could only be liable if their statements were "true threats" and therefore unprotected by the First Amendment. In a special verdict, the jury found that all the statements were true threats and awarded the doctors $ 107 million in actual and punitive damages. The district court then issued an injunction barring defendants from making or distributing the posters, the webpage or anything similar. ACLA and the other defendants appeal, claiming that their statements are protected by the First Amendment.
Extreme rhetoric and violent action have marked many political movements in American history. Patriots intimidated loyalists in both word and deed as they gathered support for American independence. John Brown and other abolitionists, convinced that God was on their side, committed murder in pursuit of their cause. In more modern times, the labor, anti-war, animal rights and environmental movements all have had their violent fringes. As a result, much of what was said even by nonviolent participants in these movements acquired a tinge of menace.
The Supreme Court confronted this problem in NAACP v. Claiborne Hardware Co., 458 U.S. 886, 73 L. Ed. 2d 1215, 102 S. Ct. 3409 (1982). There, a group of white-owned businesses sued the NAACP and others who organized a civil rights boycott against the stores. To give the boycott teeth, activists wearing black hats stood outside the stores and wrote down the names of black patrons. After these names were read aloud at meetings and published in a newspaper, sporadic acts of violence were committed against the persons and property of those on the list. At one public rally, Charles Evers, a boycott organizer, threatened that boycott breakers would be "disciplined" and warned that the sheriff could not protect them at night. At another rally, Evers stated, "If we catch any of you going in any of them racist stores, we're gonna break your damn neck." See id. The Mississippi courts held the boycott organizers liable based on Evers's statements and the activities of the black-hatted activists.
The Supreme Court acknowledged that Evers's statements could be interpreted as inviting violent retaliation, "or at least as intending to create a fear of violence whether or not improper discipline was specifically intended." Id. at 927. Nevertheless, it held that the statements were protected because there was insufficient evidence that Evers had "authorized, ratified, or directly threatened acts of violence." Id. at 929. Nor was publication of the boycott violators' names a sufficient basis for liability, even though collecting and publishing the names contributed to the atmosphere of intimidation that had harmed plaintiffs. See id. at 925-26. While Charles Evers and the defendants in our case pursued very different political goals, the two cases have one key thing in common: Political activists used words in an effort to bend opponents to their will.
The First Amendment protects ACLA's statements no less than the statements of the NAACP. Defendants can only be held liable if they "authorized, ratified, or directly threatened" violence. If defendants threatened to commit violent acts, by working alone or with others, then their statements could properly support the verdict. But if their statements merely encouraged unrelated terrorists, then their words are protected by the First Amendment.
Political speech may not be punished just because it makes it more likely that someone will be harmed at some unknown time in the future by an unrelated third party. In Brandenburg v. Ohio, 395 U.S. 444, 23 L. Ed. 2d 430, 89 S. Ct. 1827 (1969) (per curiam), the Supreme Court held that the First Amendment protects speech that encourages others to commit violence, unless the speech is capable of "producing imminent lawless action. " Id. at 447. It doesn't matter if the speech makes future violence more likely; advocating "illegal action at some indefinite future time" is protected. Hess v. Indiana, 414 U.S. 105, 108, 38 L. Ed. 2d 303, 94 S. Ct. 326 (1973) (per curiam). If the First Amendment protects speech advocating violence, then it must also protect speech that does not advocate violence but still makes it more likely. Unless ACLA threatened that its members would themselves assault the doctors, the First Amendment protects its speech.
If Charles Evers's speech was protected by the First Amendment, then ACLA's speech is also protected. Like Evers, ACLA did not communicate privately with its targets; the statements were made in public fora. And, while ACLA named its targets, it said nothing about planning to harm them; indeed, it did not even call on others to do so. This stands in contrast to the words of Charles Evers, who explicitly warned his targets that they would suffer broken necks and other physical harm. Under the standard of Claiborne Hardware, the jury's verdict cannot stand.
VACATED and REMANDED with instructions that the district court dissolve the injunction and enter judgment for the defendants on all counts.
[In footnote 10 (other footnotes have been omitted) the court states the following:]
We need not decide here whether the First Amendment would protect defendants from a suit for invasion of privacy, because plaintiffs do not claim damages based solely on the publication of private facts, namely their addresses and telephone numbers. Cf. Anderson v. Fisher Broadcasting Cos., 300 Ore. 452, 712 P.2d 803, 807 (Or. 1986) (recognizing a tort for invasion of privacy when the tortfeasor has the specific intent to cause plaintiff severe mental or emotional distress and such conduct exceeds "the farthest reach of socially tolerable behavior").