An organization whose chief waged a 28-year battle against abortion forces over issues such as sidewalk counseling praised the U.S. Supreme Court decision Thursday that overturned a Massachusetts censorship law on First Amendment grounds.
The pro Pro-Life Action League said there undoubtedly will be a ripple effect across the nation.
The high court ruled unanimously in McCullen v. Coakley that the state’s abortion clinic “buffer zone,” which prevents speech in a public area based on a particular viewpoint, violates the Constitution.
In a statement, the Pro-Life Action League said the ruling “now opens the door to challenge other buffer and bubble zones across the country and protects our right to speak to our fellow citizens about the great evil of abortion in the public square.”
“There is perhaps no better way to celebrate today’s Supreme Court victory [than] by going out to your local abortion clinic to pray or sidewalk counsel,” the group said. “If you can, take an hour today at the abortion clinic to thank God for this great ruling and be a witness for life to women seeking abortion in your community.”
It was the national director of the Pro-Life Action League, Joseph Scheidler, who fought the abortion industry for 28 years and made three trips to the U.S. Supreme Court before his full vindication.
WND reported in April an appeals court awarded the defendants in the case legal fees and costs of almost $64,000.
The case, brought by the National Organization for Women against Scheidler and others, alleged that the pro-life activists criminally conspired to oppose abortion.
However, the Thomas More Society in Chicago, whose lawyers fought on behalf of Scheidler, Andrew Scholberg, Timothy Murphy and the Pro-Life Action League for nearly three decades, confirmed the awarding of fees and costs to their clients closed the case.
WND reported in 2007 the final judgment in the case after three trips to the U.S. Supreme Court. It has taken the last seven years to argue over fees and costs.
While NOW and a number of the nation’s leading abortion providers alleged the pro-lifers engaged in a criminal conspiracy to halt the abortion industry, U.S. District Judge David Coar ruled otherwise.
WND reported in 2006 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled for the third time in the case. In that 8-0 ruling, the high court said federal extortion and racketeering laws could not be used to ban the protests.
In 2003, WND reported NOW lost its second round in the Supreme Court in a decisive 8-1 ruling. The feminist group charged that protests organized by Scheidler’s Chicago-based Pro-Life Action League amounted to extortion under RICO.
A lawyer who has worked on the case, Tom Brejcha of Chicago’s Thomas More Society and Pro-Life Law Center, said then that the dismissal of the case was significant.
“The plaintiffs designed this case as a huge dragnet and they cast it far and wide as if to encompass the entire pro-life activist movement in America,” he said at the time. “The law of ‘res judicata’ or ‘claim preclusion’ varies from state to state, but all pro-life activists who face lawsuits by their local abortion providers may have a defense based on today’s final judgment.
“The judgment bars ‘all claims that might have been brought in this case’ on behalf of all class member abortion clinics. This is not just federal RICO or antitrust claims, but also state and local trespass or harassment claims of all sorts,” he said. “As NOW and the other plaintiffs have met a final defeat, the tables are turned against them.”
While pro-abortion activists said they were “upset” and “concerned” over the ruling Thursday, the fairness of the 9-0 court’s decision was lauded by most who responded.
The Thomas More Law Center, which has a similar case pending in Portland, Maine, said the ruling is “a clear message to other states and municipalities that they may not take the extreme step of closing a substantial portion of a traditional public forum to all speakers simply because this extreme step would be easier than enforcing other less restrictive laws that already exist.”
Judie Brown of the American Life League called it a victory for free speech.
“The abortion industry in the United States thrives because it continually lies to women,” Brown said. “Pro-lifers in the streets outside of abortion facilities are amazed at the lies related to them by hurting mothers who are on their way to kill their child. Sidewalk counselors are able to change minds and hearts by simply offering help to women in crisis situations.”
Rutherford Institute President John W. Whitehead said the high court is recognizing that speech – “even speech that many might find disagreeable” – must be protected.
“The court recognizes that the Massachusetts law placing an undue burden on people of a particular viewpoint is repugnant to the principles inherent in the First Amendment, and that speech, however unpopular, must always be protected from undue government interference,” he said.
‘Watershed in the movement’
Jay Sekulow of the American Center for Law and Justice believes the ruling will change the course of future disputes.
“This decision is a watershed in the movement to undo the infamous ‘abortion distortion’ – the judicial distortion in free-speech jurisprudence that effectively denies full free speech rights to the pro-life movement,” said Sekulow. “This is a sensible and constitutionally sound decision that sends a message to the Obama administration and pro-abortion state governments: pro-life speech is free speech, fully protected by the First Amendment. The pro-life movement is now more free to take its life-saving message to the people who need to hear it the most.”
Liberty Counsel, which is engaged in a similar dispute, in West Palm Beach, Fla., noted Chief Justice John Roberts’ conclusion that the pro-lifers want to “converse with their fellow citizens about an important subject on the public streets and sidewalks – sites that have hosted discussions about the issues of the day throughout history.”
The abortion clinics, he said, have “undeniably significant interests in maintaining public safety on those same streets and sidewalks, as well as in preserving access to adjacent health care facilities.”
“But here the Commonwealth has pursued those interests by the extreme step of closing a substantial portion of a traditional public forum to all speakers. It has done so without seriously addressing the problem through alternatives that leave the forum open for its time-honored purposes,” the chief justice said.
Liberty Counsel Chairman Mat Staver said the “continual secularization and anti-life agenda of our government is responsible for this double standard at abortion facilities.”
“Determined to continue the assault on women and the preborn, the state of Massachusetts will not even allow a woman in a crisis pregnancy to receive sidewalk counseling at a time in her life when such counseling is vital to her future and that of her unborn baby,” Staver said.
‘Confusing, erratically enforced laws’
Eric Scheidler, executive director of the Pro-Life Action League, said the court-endorsed bubble zones in Chicago and Colorado now might be in danger.
“Confusing, erratically enforced bubble zone laws remain on the books in many places,” he said, “Even with today’s victory, freedom of speech by pro-life advocates is not yet fully protected.”
Troy Newman, president of Operation Rescue, said the buffer zones “have not only denied pro-life activists their right to speak, but have also denied women the right to hear information about abortion that could be wanted and helpful to them in making a decision that will affect the rest of their lives.”
“We are very pleased with today’s ruling that upholds our precious First Amendment rights to speak out in the public forum without interference from the abortion cartel. We know that lives will be saved as a result of this decision,” Newman said.
Mark Rienzi, an attorney with the Alliance Defending Freedom, argued Americans have “the freedom to talk to whomever they please on public sidewalks.”
“That includes peaceful pro-lifers like Eleanor McCullen [named in the Massachusetts case], who just wants to offer information and help to women who would like it,” he said. “The Supreme Court has affirmed a critical freedom that has been an essential part of American life since the nation’s founding.”
Bill Donohue of the Catholic League warned the battle isn’t over.
“The pro-abortion industry was unanimous in its contempt for free speech,” he said.
He noted that Jan Erickson of the National Organization for Women Foundation told his group in January what she thought of protesters who pray at abortion clinics.
Erickson wrote: “There can be no other way to describe in a single word what antiabortion protesters have engaged in for four decades and that is terrorism.” (Her italic.)
Donohue said her colleague, Terry O’Neill, is “just as irrational.”
“She said,” according to Donohue that pro-life protesters “want to be able to grab patients, get in their faces, scream at them that they are immoral, and having an abortion is a mortal sin and a risk to their health, among other falsehoods.”
Donohue said the good news is that “these lying fanatics lost today.”
“But we need to reflect, not relax. Just think for a moment who these people are: Their entire professional life is dedicated to killing unborn babies and killing the First Amendment. So what’s left once life and liberty have been snuffed out? ”