In two separate trials over
the past several months, anti-abortion activists have been held accountable
in civil trials for their advocacy of violence under laws that may be
exploitable by those trying to stop animal rights violence.
In a Chicago trial last year,
Planned Parenthood and other groups won millions of dollars in awards
from activists who never actually committed acts of violence but did make
(often vague) statements supporting or inciting such violence. In the
recently concluded “Nuremberg Files” case, a jury delivered a
guilty verdict against an antiabortion web site that displayed “wanted
posters” of abortion doctors, along with personal information such
as addresses, phone numbers and even the names of the doctors’ children.
So what dos that have to do
with animal rights violence? A lot actually. In both cases lawyers relied
heavily on the civil provisions of the |Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt
Organizations| (RICO) law. The RICO law was originally passed to allow
prosecutors to go after legitimate businesses that had been taken over
by the mob and used to hide criminal activity.
Along with the criminal provisions,
RICO included provisions allowing private individuals to sue groups and
individuals who illegally interfere with the operations of legal enterprises.
In its release after the trial,
the American Medical Association heralded the verdict and specifically
mentioned possible action “on behalf of biomedical researchers
targeted by an extreme faction of ‘animal rights activists.’” Assuming
the verdict in both the Chicago and “Nuremberg Files”
cases holds up on appeal, some animal rights organizations and web sites
could be ripe for similar lawsuits.
The most vulnerable groups would be
those posting Animal Liberation Front materials or materials in support
of ALF actions. There are several web sites that include instructions
on how to build incendiary devices along with the names and addresses of
fur farms and medical researchers. These individuals and groups are exposing themselves to an
extraordinary degree of liability under RICO.
Even the more “mainstream”
animal rights groups might not be beyond successful prosecution. In the
Chicago case, for example, several defendants were convicted based on
the following set of circumstances: a) they made rather inflammatory statements
about abortion doctors or clinics at one point or another, although they
never personally engaged in violence nor directly incited such violence;
and b) they ended up working in a broad coalition of antiabortion activists
that included both groups that condemned violence and groups that
advocated or at least sympathized with violence.
The jury in the Chicago case
agreed with Planned Parenthood lawyers who argued that the coalition of
groups met the standards of a criminal conspiracy under RICO.
I suspect the Supreme Court
may tighten up some of the requirements for such civil violations of RICO,
but it has already affirmed the fundamental tenets behind such suits.
Such laws could possibly be used to shut down animal rights groups and
sites that are clearly advocating violence.
AMA Applauds Verdict Against Web Site That Threatened Violence Against Physicians. American Medical Association, Press Release, February 2, 1999.
Anti-abortion foes vow appeal. Maria Seminerio, ZDNN, February 3, 1999.
Limiting Web speech rights. Brad Knickerbocker, Christian Science Monitor, February 4, 1999.