NOW’s Abortion Lawsuit Threatens Freedom of Expression

The fundamental problem with American
politics is that it is largely unprincipled. Groups and lobbies often
seem more interested in getting their own outcome — regardless of the
methods they need to use.

This simple maxim was underscored
with last week’s unanimous Supreme Court ruling that Planned Parenthood
could sue Operation Rescue and other pro-life groups under the Racketeer-Influenced
and Corrupt Organization laws. Planned Parenthood’s “victory”
is nothing less than a stunning blow to the very freedom and choices that
the organization pretends to cherish so deeply.

RICO was passed in 1970 in an effort
to give prosecutors a bigger weapon against organized crime. Congress
wanted to make it easier to go after legitimate businesses that had been
infiltrated and controlled by organized crime outfits.

RICO never did make much of an
impact on organized crime, but prosecutors and other groups were more
than willing to use its provisions for political purposes. The Reagan
administration, for example, encouraged the use of the RICO statutes to
crack down on pornography.

In 1988, The Nation reported
the story of Dennis and Barbara Pryba who owned three adult bookstores.
In 1987 they were charged and found guilty of selling six obscene magazines
and four obscene videotapes. Under RICO, which only requires two criminal
acts to apply, this made the couple an organized crime racket and the
government seized over $1 million in property from the couple.

Reagan’s Attorney General Ed
Meese set up a special anti-obscenity task force whose sole purpose was
to use the RICO laws to drive adult bookstores out of business.

What Meese and Reagan never understood
was that restricting speech can cut both ways.

When a machinists’ union claimed
that Texas Air was violating airline safety rulings, Texas Air promptly
sued the union claming that such criticism constituted “a pattern
of racketeering activity.”

When John Spear, editor of a small
weekly newspaper in New York criticized the way police in West Hartford,
Conn., handled abortion protesters, West Hartford sued him under the RICO
statute, claiming his editorials were an attempt to intimidate West Hartford
police. They argued that Spear’s damaging criticisms constituted
an extortion attempt.

And now the Supreme Court has ruled
that RICO may be used against antiabortion groups.

The National Organization for Women
argued that Operation Rescue had engaged in a conspiracy of racketeering
to run abortion clinics out of business. Operation Rescue concedes it
want to see abortion clinics out of business, but argued that since its
motivation was political and not economic, RICO could not be used against
the organization. The Supreme Court ruled that the motivation of the group
is immaterial to whether or not RICO may be applied.

NOW’s case against Operation
Rescue will now go to trial. If it can convince a jury that blocking entrances
to abortion clinics constitutes a form of extortion, or if it can tie
a couple members of Operation Rescue to other criminal acts, such as bomb
threats, it can probably put Operation Rescue out of business.

This is a horrible application
of RICO and one that will be felt in other areas besides the conflict
over abortion.

“Under this decision, Martin
Luther King Jr. would have been a racketeer,” Randall Terry, founder
of Operation Rescue, told The New York Times. “What I’d
say to the AIDS activists, the anti-nuclear groups, the animal rights
people, is get your affairs in order and line up, because you’re
next.”

If abortion clinics can use the
RICO statutes against abortion protesters, what’s to stop corporations
from using it against animal rights protesters?

“Animal rights activists sometimes
use peaceful, non-violent protests … and we’re concerned that this
kind of decisions is going to chill that First Amendment activity,”
Todd Davis, a lawyer for People for the Treatment of Animals, told USA
Today
.

In fact NOW might eventually find
itself on the other side of the RICO law.

Given the shaky grounds that Roe
v. Wade was construed on, and the clear desire by some Supreme Court justices
to overturn the decision, it’s not inconceivable that the Supreme
Court might turn the issue of abortion back to the states. Operation Rescue
then might find use for this law in going after pro-abortion groups and
protesters.

By attacking Operation Rescue with
RICO, NOW has demonstrated that achieving its short-term political aims
is more important than preserving the First Amendment protection guaranteed
to all Americans.

Someday, NOW might regret that
decision.

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