Supreme Court Rejects Anti-Abortion Racketeering Lawsuit

The Supreme Court overturned by a vote of 8-1 a successful lawsuit brought against anti-abortion protesters under the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corruption Organizations Act.

The National Organization of Women successfully sued Joseph M. Scheidler using the civil lawsuit provisions of the RICO act. NOW argued in court that anti-abortion activists who protested at clinics were in essence not simply practicing civil disobedience, but in fact formed a criminal conspiracy aimed at extorting legitimate business enterprise.

Chief Justice Rehnquist, writing in the majority opinion, said of this novel legal theory,

There is no dispute in these cases that petitioners interfered with, disrupted, and in some instances completely deprived respondents of their ability to exercise their property rights. Likewise, petitioners’ counsel readily acknowledged at oral argument that aspects of his clients’ conduct were criminal. But even when their acts of interference and disruption achieved their ultimate goal of “shutting down” a clinic that performed abortions, such acts did not constitute extortion because petitioners did not “obtain” respondents’ property. Petitioners may have deprived or sought to deprive respondents of their alleged property right of exclusive control of their business assets, but they did not acquire any such property. Petitioners neither pursued nor received “something of value from” respondents that they could exercise, transfer, or sell.

This ruling will likely mean an end to any remaining efforts to use RICO against animal rights activists. The court is pretty clear that whatever else the activities of a group like Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty might be, it doesn’t make sense to describe them as extortion.

In a brief concurring opinion, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg points to where opponents of animal rights extremism should look as a model — Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act of 1994. This act provides additional criminal and civil penalties for individuals and groups who block access to clinics. In effect, the law says that organized efforts to deny women access to abortion clinics constitutes a crime of serious enough nature that it needs to be prosecuted as more than a simple trespassing or disturbing the peace.

The Supreme Court has turned away all challenges to the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act that have reached it, and thus it would serve well as model legislation designed to more effectively deal with organized criminal acts against animal enterprises.


Scheidler vs. National Organization for Women.

High court overturns ruling in abortion case. Elliott Blackburn, The Daily Texan, February 27, 2003.

Extortion law ruled invalid in protest case. Joan Biskupic, USA Today, February 27, 2003.

Protection for protesters. John Leon, U.S. News & World Report, March 10, 2003.

Supreme Court Agrees to Hear RICO Lawsuit Appeal

In a decision that will have implications for the animal rights movement and its opponents, the Supreme Court today agreed to consider the appeal of anti-abortion advocates who have been hit with multi-million dollar judgments in racketeering lawsuits brought by the National Organization for Women.

The issue at hand is at what point legitimate protests become racketeering. Under the civil provisions of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, NOW was able to win judgments against individuals such as Joseph Scheidler who did not personally engage in acts of violence but whom publicly approved of such violence and/or engaged in a long pattern of other harassment such as staging sit-ins outside of abortion clinics where they would prevent access to and from the clinic, often by chaining themselves in the doorways of clinics.

Juries hearing these cases have tended to agree with NOW’s claim that taken together, the persistent use of these tactics by an individual or group fits the description of racketeering and extortion under the RICO statute.

Of course, these are the same sorts of tactics commonly used by animal rights activists and groups against restaurants, fur stores and other animal enterprises. According to the Associated Press, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals was one of the groups that asked the Supreme Court to accept the anti-abortionist appeal in order to clarify the rule.

PETA has been the target of at least one RICO lawsuit. After undercover activist Michelle Rokke infiltrated Huntingdon Life Sciences and came back with video tapes, pictures and other documents that PETA claimed showed abuse, HLS hit PETA up with a RICO lawsuit asking for $10 million in damages and legal fees.

PETA counsel Jeff Kerr testified before the House Subcommittee on Crime. According to Kerr,

The RICO counts in our case allege that PETA’s earlier animal cruelty investigations dating back as far as 1989 constituted a pattern of racketeering activity, including extortion through a climate of violence against Huntingdon and the other subjects of our investigation. All told, Huntingdon sought damages and legal fees exceeding $10 million. Early in the case we were slapped with a gag order which precluded us from further disseminating our findings to the public. The gag order prohibited us from cooperating with the USDA investigation of our own complaint, and this despite USDA requests for our cooperation.

PETA eventually released a settlement agreement with HLS.

One thing about PETA, by the way, is that they do not practice what they preach. According to Kerr,

PETA officers, directors and employees have repeatedly been the targets of death threats. We receive photographs of ourselves with our eyes poked out, explicit details of our own sexual torture and bloody packages of animal remains. These threats have often contained references to information disseminated by our opponents, including vivisection industry trade groups and animal abusers whom we have exposed. We do not sue our opponents under civil RICO claiming extortion or mail or wire fraud as a result of these activities. Rather, we fight those opponents in open public debates, in the media, in panel discussions, on radio and television talk shows, through letters to the editor, and by aggressively publicizing our views to rebut their positions. That is how it is meant to be in America.

Of course this is the same PETA that turned around and sued Rosie O’Donnell for $350,000 for saying that “the GAP uses only leather that is approved from PETA…” This despite the fact, that PETA had successfully lobbied for The Gap to switch its leather supplier from the Indian and Chinese suppliers it had been using.

PETA is notorious for threatening litigation over hair splitting stuff like this. PETA would have surely lost its case, but who has time to face off with these folks in court?

It will be interesting to see what the Supreme Court eventually decides. Using the standards that operated in the lawsuit against Scheidler and others, PETA itself would be wide open to RICO lawsuits given the numerous statements in support of violence and terrorism that Ingrid Newkirk, Bruce Friedrich and others have made over the years, especially in combination with their various acts of non-violent civil disobedience over the years.

If the Supreme Court upholds the Scheidler verdicts, look for serious repercussions against PETA and other animal rights groups. If the Court should overturn the verdicts, however, expect an even more emboldened crowd on the Internet and elsewhere in support of animal rights terrorism.


Supreme Court to review use of RICO laws against abortion protesters. Associated Press, April 22, 2002.

Statement of Jeff Kerr, Esq., General Counsel, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Hearing Before the Subcommittee On Crime of the Committee on the Judiciary, House Of Representatives, One Hundred Fifth Congress, Second Session, July 17, 1998.

Huntingdon Sues Activists

On April 19, Huntingdon Life Sciences announced that it was joining a lawsuit against “various animal rights organizations and affiliated individuals” who the company argues are involved in an “unlawful campaign of violence, intimidation, and harassment directed at the Company and Stephens Group of Little Rock, Arkansas, one of the Company’s significant shareholders.” Stephens Group had already filed the lawsuit against the activists, which HLS seeks to join.

HLS’s amended complaint was filed in the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey and charges Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty, Voices for Animals, Animal Defense League, In Defense of Animals, and several individuals with violating state and federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization (RICO) statutes. According to an HLS press release,

The suit requests injunctive relief to stop the defendants and those acting in concert with them from engaging in acts and threats of force, violence and intimidation directed at the Company, Stephens, and their respective employees, customers, shareholders and investors. It also seeks an award of monetary damages for losses incurred as a result of the defendants’ unlawful conduct.

Huntingdon’s executive chairman Andrew Baker said in the release, “This suit represents a next step in the Company’s initiatives to reign in the company of a small band of animal rights extremists who are seeking to destroy our Company and undermine the fields of scientific discovery which rely on the Company’s crucial work. Unlike the activists, who defy the law to terrorize people and entities to bow to their demands, we will seek proper redress in the US legal system.”


Huntingdon sues animal activists. Huntingdon Life Sciences, Press Release, April 19, 2001.

Quiet facet of drug industry is drawing a loud reaction. Kate Coscarelli and John P. Martin, New Jersey Star-Ledger, Apri 8, 2001.

Could Supporters of Animal Rights Terrorism Be Charged With Stalking?

The 9th District Court of Appeals recently overturned a civil jury award against the anti-abortion Nuremberg Files which had collected personal information about abortion providers and created “Wanted Posters” affixed with the names and pictures of abortion doctors. The Court ruled that unless they directly threatened or participated in a criminal conspiracy, the Nuremberg Files site was protected by the First Amendment. This would seem to put an end to civil |Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization| lawsuits against animal rights activists, but there may be an alternative — stalking laws might apply to such groups.

Ironically in the 9th District Court there is a trial going on right now based on this theory. The case involves anti-government activist Jim Bell. Bell was jailed for a few years for tax evasion and other crimes he plead guilty to as part of a plea bargain arrangement. Bell is most (in)famous for his “Assassination Politics” idea. This was a computerized system using strong encryption that would allow people to arrange for the assassination of public officials.

After he was released from jail, Bell began using publicly available sources to compile information about federal judges. He also apparently visited the home of at least one judge to case the house out. After an investigation, Bell was indicted for stalking. It is my understanding that the indictment specifically argues that Bell’s compilation of personal data about judges constituted stalking, even though it came from publicly available sources.

If this prosecution is successful — and survives any challenges — this could be a possible legal avenue for individuals and businesses who are being harassed by animal rights activists. Various Animal Liberation Front-style sites publish both information about how to go about committing terrorist acts as well as information about the addresses, phone numbers, and other personal information about researchers. Assuming the Bell prosecution is successful, these sites and their authors would seem to be even more vulnerable since almost none of the people targeted by animal rights activists even come close to being public figures (unlike federal judges).

'Nuremberg Files' Web Site Verdict Thrown Out – Victory for Animal Rights Activists

The Associated Press reports that a three-judge panel in the 9th District Court has thrown out the controversial civil lawsuit against the Nuremberg Files web site.

The Nuremberg Files was a web site set up by anti-abortion activists. Among other things, the site listed names and other personal information about doctors who performed abortions. It also included posters that mimicked wanted posters but included pictures of abortion providers which it referred to as “baby butchers.”

Three doctors whose names appeared on lists maintained by the Nuremberg Files were murdered. Planned Parenthood sued the Nuremberg Files in court under provisions of the |Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization| statute claiming that the web site was essentially the focal point of a criminal conspiracy. That nobody involved with the web site had committed or even planned any acts of violence was irrelevant — the contents of the web site itself made the Nuremberg Files responsible, in part, for abortion-related violence.

A jury agreed with Planned Parenthood and the proprietors of the site were ordered to pay damages to Planned Parenthood and several abortion doctors.

The 9th District Court unanimously agreed that the jury was wrong — what the Nuremberg Files did was speech protected by the First Amendment. In the majority opinion, Circuit Judge Alex Kozinski wrote,

If defendants threatened to commit violent acts, by working alone or with others, then their [works] could properly support the verdict. But if their [works] merely encouraged unrelated terrorists, then their words are protected by the First Amendment.

This will have a major impact on a number of pending suits against animal rights activists.

First, this is going to end up in the Supreme Court. Planned Parenthood has the deep pockets necessary to see this case through to the end. They will especially be encouraged to do so since the 9th Circuit Court’s decisions are often overturned by the Supreme Court. It has a reputation for rendering decisions that the Supreme Court later deems to be an excessively broad interpretation of the Constitution.

Second, if the verdict survives a Supreme Court challenge, the various RICO suits against animal rights activists are dead. If the 9th Circuit Court is correct, then an Animal Liberation Front site can list personal information about, say, federally-funded medical researchers, and cheer those who commit violent acts, but so long as they don’t directly threaten or engage in a conspiracy with those who commit violence, there is no legal recourse.

I suspect the Supreme Court will overturn the 9th District’s opinion, even if it ultimately sides with the Nuremberg Files, since the decision provides a gaping legal hole for people conspiring to commit murder.


Court: OK to Encourage Abortion Threat. David Kreats, Associated Press, March 28, 2001.

Wall Street Journal on ELF Guilty Plea

Yesterday the Wall Street Journal ran an unsigned piece of commentary about the guilty plea recently entered by a young man who admitted to burning homes in the Long Island, New York, area in the name of the Earth Liberation Front.

The Journal worries that,

…despite ELF’s extraordinary run of arson, public outrage hasn’t caught up with the crimes, which the group boasts about on various Internet sites. Because its targets have been corporations, construction sites and research labs, there has been an inclination to dismiss the group as misguided idealists.

…think of the reaction had that been, say, an abortion clinic or an African-American church.

Regardless of why the ELF doesn’t have a higher profile in the media, a more interesting question is whether the FBI plans on taking action against the ELF web site. In all the news reports about the plea bargain, prominent mention has been made of the fact that the arsonists in Long Island downloaded everything they needed to know about how to torch the luxury homes from the ELF site.

In fact the ELF web site distributes an Animal Liberation Front manual in PDF form, Arson Around with Auntie ALF, describing in detail how to go about committing acts of arson. Although they have standard “don’t try this at home” warnings, those are unlikely to be a very solid defense against criminal conspiracy charges, possibly under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization statute, and even more likely a |Racketeering Influenced and
Corrupt Organization| civil suit by developers.


Review & Outlook. Wall Street Journal, February 14, 2001.