Aggressive pro-life protesters cannot be punished by federal racketeering laws meant for organized crime and drug dealers, according to a Supreme Court ruling today.

An unusual coalition of about 70 activists and groups – including actor Martin Sheen and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals – was lined up behind Operation Rescue, pro-life leader Joseph Scheidler, national director of the Chicago-based Pro-Life Action League, and others who had been ordered to pay damages to abortion clinics.

The 8-1 decision favored protests of all types, ruling that “acts of interference and disruption,” such as the kind that took place at abortion clinics, did not constitute “extortion” under the federal Racketeer Influenced Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO.

“This decision is a tremendous victory for those who engage in social protests,” said Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice, who served as counsel of record for Operation Rescue in the case.

Randall Terry, founder of Operation Rescue, said the decision means all Americans “can peacefully protest and demonstrate, without being hauled into court and tried as mobsters.”

Former Presidential candidate Gary Bauer, head of the lobby group American Values, called the ruling a “tremendous victory for pro-life Americans who will no longer be treated as second-class citizens when it comes to expressing their anguish over what is happening to unborn children in this country.”

“The Supreme Court’s near-unanimous decision gives breathing room for the First Amendment-protected speech of many political groups that have been virtually shut out of public debate because of threats of huge fines like those imposed on these protesters,” stated John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute. “No longer can the civil liability provisions of the RICO Act be used as a bludgeon to silence dissenters from rightfully expressing their views in a public forum.”

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, writing for the majority, said that to conclude that blocking access to clinics “constituted extortion would effectively discard the statutory requirement that property must be obtained from another, replacing it instead with the notion that merely interfering with or depriving someone of property is sufficient to constitute extortion.”

The National Organization for Women joined in a lawsuit brought by abortion clinics in Delaware and Wisconsin in 1986 which contended that the clinics should be protected from violent protesters by racketeering and extortion laws.

NOW and its allies accused Operation Rescue and other groups of blocking clinic entrances, harassing doctors, patients and clinic staff, and destroying equipment in an effort to stop abortions. The demonstrators were fined $258,000 and prohibited from interfering nationwide with the clinics’ business for 10 years.

The ruling lifts the injuction.

Rehnquist said there is no dispute that abortion protesters interfered with clinic operations and in some cases committed crimes. Scheidler and his colleagues insist that they did not use violence.

Rehnquist wrote, nevertheless that “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.”

The anti-abortion protesters were punished under the 32-year-old RICO Act and the Hobbs Act, a 1946 law that targets organized crime.

In the only dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens wrote that the court limited the scope of Hobbs, which makes it a crime to take property from another with force.

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