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Friday, 6 April, 2001, 09:48 GMT 10:48 UK
Has free speech gone too far?
A federal appeals court in San Francisco ruled that a website that brands the doctors as "baby butchers" is protected by the First Amendment that guarantees free speech, despite the argument by some that it amounts to a hit list which incites violence.
The case is being seen as an important test on the limits of free speech.
"Political speech may not be punished just because it makes it more likely that someone will be harmed at some unknown time in the future," the judges said in their ruling.
Is this a step too far for free speech? Where should we set the limits, especially in new forums such as the internet?
Material that one might find degrading or destructive of human dignity is the price we pay for freedom. If you have the right to say what you believe, then others with whom you disagree have the right to do so too. Freedom is precious...and freedom of speech is requisite for ANY freedom to exist.
I wonder what the sponsors of the First Amendment would have to say about rulings such as this? I often suspect they would be horrified.
As a Christian, I am often dismayed by the actions and words of others in the name of Christianity. A Christian is supposed to be a follower of Christ - can you imagine Him setting up such a website?
To be pro-life is a good thing, but the end does not justify the means.
Amanda Bradley, Seattle, Washington
As a Christian and a pro-lifer myself I don't see the real issue here to be one of "freedom of speech". Rather, it is related to whether a group of extreme vigilantes should be allowed to incite violence against others.
Freedom of thought and speech is a privilege that must not be abused. Those who use that freedom for their own ends to incite fear and hatred deserved to be censored.
It's all part of the greater plan to herd us like cattle. The Government has everyone in the US fighting each other over abortion, guns and a lot of other abstract issues while they slowly take away our freedom. We need to wake up and respect the fact that we disagree with one another over a few issues and concentrate on preserving our freedom.
Funny that a website that loves life so much it protects embryos, celebrates the murders of doctors!
This website is not about life, it's about power over another human being.
I believe that anyone who would kill an abortion doctor has little need of such a site to encourage them or help them find a doctor's house. They could easily follow a doctor home or look him up in a phone book.
Like Chantal in Canada, I visited the website and was horrified that this hate-mongering bigotry is offered in the name of Christianity. These people are no more Christian than the man-in-the-moon is. They strike me as being sad, vicious, little people whose intelligence must be seriously questioned. If listing the names and addresses of doctors, their spouses and children isn't a tacit incitement to violence by the morons in our society then I don't know what is.
Doctors providing abortions are not murderers, but ordinary people helping women in distress. Interesting that a large number of so-called pro-lifers appear to consider that the right to life stops at some point down the line, and are thus willing to see some people sent to the electric chair and to do nothing to prevent others from using firearms with deadly consequences. Christian compassion is a highly selective matter for them.
Lots of UK correspondents have said things like "freedom of speech is a basic human right". Not here it isn't - for example the Race Relations Act forbids incitement to racial hatred, I believe rightly. Would free speech supporters in the UK want to see this revoked? Personally, I find the idea of "basic rights" fundamentally laughable - society defines rights the same way it defines laws. The right to life applies to our citizens today but doesn't to somewhere else's tomorrow when we decide to wage war on them.
Chris Dyke, Devon, England
I suppose it is entirely consistent that a Constitution which upholds violence and killing by the State in various forms, including the death penalty, should see no harm in aiding and abetting those who wish to incite the same on abortion doctors.
However, all this really goes to prove is that we only have unlimited "free speech" until enough people start listening; then the authorities intervene as they see fit. It's just a shame that some people are so morally bankrupt that they can hide behind a "freedom" they'd only be too willing to deny to their enemies.
I visited the website and was appalled. Seeing it with my own eyes... the names of doctors who have been murdered crossed out in grey... addresses of their homes, their children's schools... it was more than painful. It was eerie. There is a difference between free speech and incitement to violence.
Being pro-choice and standing fully for the right of woman to choose, I completely disagree with the ACLA (American Coalition of Life Activists) publishing of abortion doctors' names on their website. However, free speech requires that you permit those you disagree with to freely communicate their ideas. The ACLA never explicitly advocates violence against these doctors. However, even if it had, this still would be protected speech. The US Supreme Court held in the Claiborne Hardware case that political speech that carries threats of violence is protected, unless it's made directly to the targets themselves (not in a public forum). I don't agree with the ACLA, but living in a free society comes with a price. However, the road to more freedom is much less dangerous than the road to more censorship.
It is a shame that the rights enshrined in the First Amendment have so often today become a cloak for those unable to utilize this freedom without sowing discord or creating offence. The current actions by these Pro Life groups serve no other use but to provoke anti-abortion sentiment by invading the privacy of those medical professionals who are simply choosing to provide legal services to those citizens who wish to legally obtain them. A better use of free speech would be to convince us of the legitimacy of one's claim rather than to threaten those who oppose it.
It's been several hundred years since the first amendment, but by and large, much of Europe seems to be lagging behind. It's laughable to an American civil libertarian to hear about France and Germany trying to ban websites for content that the government deems unacceptable. This website is not fundamentally different, unless (under American law) a connection can be made between the content and the murders.
It seems to me that it's not so much a matter of censorship versus free speech, but of free speech versus incitement to violence. The website should simply publish a list of doctors and hospitals where abortions can be obtained, and leave it at that. That way pro-lifers could publicly demonstrate their outrage by "voting with their feet" and boycotting those doctors and hospitals, and those who are pro-choice could find a handy reference list if they need one. Seems an admirable solution to me!
Free speech is not without limits. For example it is unlawful to shout fire in a crowded theatre. To do so is to incite panic and shows a reckless disregard for public safety. I cannot see how the justices can fail to apply the same standard to a website that incites others to commit murder.
I wonder if unborn humans have freedom of speech? - or a right to choose?
Free speech is not unrestricted in the United States. I cannot for example mount a speaker on my car and at maximum volume broadcast my opinion. In other words, the harm the form of free speech causes is a consideration. If anti-abortionists want to make their opinions known, they can simply do so with arguments outlining why they hold those beliefs. Making people perform in certain ways through fear of violence is simply a way of saying, "We cannot justify our beliefs therefore we have to get what we want through threats and violence". Hardly the world you want a baby to live in.
Offend or please, free speech is free speech - the first rule of democracy for those who understand the true meaning of the word. It's something we don't really have in the UK. We need the first amendment in Britain and indeed Europe and the rest of the world. God bless the Internet and the Euro/American geniuses who created it.
Interesting to read people parading their religious views about babies' rights to life etc. Of course throughout history people with those same views and values have slaughtered huge numbers who didn't happen to agree with them including many of their own flocks! Reminds me of those fighting for animal rights and using violence and murder against those they choose to hate. What strange creatures we are!
How many Brits, who are now criticizing this example of free speech in America, criticized the publication of a list of ex paedophiles in a British newspaper recently? I sense another case of a now-common double standard, namely that free speech is sacrosanct as long as it supports the left wing agenda. Rich Vose, California, USA
Free speech? In America? Where? It is mostly in the imagination. The whole country is all about money and power without either you're just a stalactite!
The Internet is one place where anyone can still voice their opinion without censorship lets keep it that way regardless of what the content is. Free speech is much more important than name calling. As we used to say in school "Sticks and stones etc."
The judges said: "Political speech may not be punished just because it makes it more likely that someone will be harmed at some unknown time in the future,"
Does this mean that if I believe that what the CIA is
doing is immoral it is okay to publish the names of CIA operatives
As objectionable as these hate-mongers and bigots are, I'd rather they could be seen and heard so that we can all fully appreciate just how awful they really are. Besides, censorship of any kind is even more objectionable.
Peter Cook, USA
These websites' activities are perfectly legal, but if anti-abortion activists were truly concerned with saving lives, they wouldn't have published the doctors' names and addresses, thus making them targets for murderous fundamentalist fanatics.
As the US Supreme Court ruled in FCC v Pacifica 1978 "The fact that society may find speech offensive is not a sufficient reason for suppressing it. Indeed, if it is the speaker's opinion that gives offence, that consequence is a reason for according it constitutional protection"
Pretty much sums it up for me
So we have to stand up for free speech no matter what form it takes? That is utterly ridiculous as we do not live in a world of clear rights and wrongs. To allow this website to publish doctors names, who are providing a service wanted by the majority of women, in order to scare them out of their practices is wrong. You cannot make allowances for free speech of those whose only purpose is terrorise people and incite some to kill. Threatening someone is unacceptable behaviour, no matter what form it takes.
Simon Cameron, UK
It's one thing to call abortion doctors "butchers." Hateful and vicious as that is, it's protected speech. It's quite another thing to give people the resources to kill those doctors.
In other words: In the United States, you do have a constitutional right to hurt peoples' feelings. But you should not have the right to use those same resources to endanger their lives.
Even as we discuss this, the man suspected of killing Dr Slepian is in a French jail. He likely faces a prolonged extradition fight because France will not extradite him if he faces the death penalty. Much as I despise this man's crime, it illustrates the hypocrisy at the heart of America: This man killed a doctor who he believed killed babies because he believed killing is wrong, so we want to kill him to show others that killing is wrong.
So I say: Kudos to the French Republic! Once again, Europe has its ducks in a row while we in the USA argue over basic principles of human rights we claim to have figured out 212 years ago.
Abortion doctors know they are taking a life. They don't want to be reminded of the awful act they are doing. If you see Pro-Life and Pro-Choice demonstrations they show the large Pro-Life group. The media never shows the Pro-Choice group. Why? Because this group is not a majority. They are using the courts to justify an immoral act.
Dictatorships are weak governments because they do not have the popular support of the majority of the people. Dictatorships usually restrict freedom of speech because freedom of speech threatens law and order. A dictatorship needs a large army and a strong secret police in order to avoid anarchy.
Strong governments, on the other hand, allow freedom of speech because the majority of the people support them -- that is why they are strong governments. Strong governments do not fear freedom of speech. But should freedom of speech threaten the breakdown of law and order then that will be the end of freedom of speech and the beginning of dictatorship. Law and order comes first. Order is better than chaos. We talk of pro-life, so shouldn't we be honest and talk also of pro-death instead of pro-choice. The government and the majority of the people are pro-death so the government is strong and able to tolerate freedom of speech. Only a small minority are pro-life.
Never once does anyone address the rights of young voices stilled under the knife of the abortionist. Free speech? I believe many of you folks need to rethink your position.
Reality check for the English: You have no rights, you only have privileges. That's why English judges are free to suspend habeas corpus on the unbacked word of a policeman. And disallow you a jury of your peers to save court time. And prevent you from facing your accuser, if you're charged with rape. If you're found innocent, you can be tried again. And if you're tried twice, and still found innocent, as recently occurred in a libel suit, the judge can say "Oops, there are no grounds for a mistrial, the jury just got it wrong. Here's the right verdict."
It's sad how the English can quote and debate and even deride provisions of US law that are frankly none of their concern, and then do nothing when their own liberty is quietly eroded.
I can tell from the postings why animal rights activists can firebomb cars and houses with impunity, but a pro-life organisation is held accountable for simply listing information that is a matter of public record. It's having the "correct" personal convictions that counts.
I sincerely believe in the importance of free speech. I also believe that until a foetus is born, it is part of a woman's body and its fate is entirely up to her. If this is not the case, then all pregnant women are nothing but baby-making slaves for the state. The anti-abortion people should be able to say what they want, but if what they want is war, then we should give them that too.
The USA can add this piece of moral high ground lunacy hidden behind its Bill of Rights to some other political gems such as the withdrawal from Kyoto, and the democratic fiasco that was the Presidential election. The USA has become self centred concerned with power rather than people or the planet and can no longer champion itself as the leader of democratic rights. The failure to protect its doctors' rights marches with its failure to protect the environment, its people or this planet. Wake up America you are not the nation you once were!
Freedom of speech, women's right to choose ... what about a baby's right to live?
I believe that the website is within its rights to publicise the actions of doctors who perform abortions. Many patients will not wish to be treated by such doctors. I do not see how this publication is notably worse than the frequent attempts by the British National Abortion Campaign to eliminate from practice those British doctors who refuse to participate in abortions.
Today various positive sounding names are used to hide the acts of humans on other humans. Pro choice is one of them. Why not call a spade a spade. Thou shalt not kill ... Abortion is killing of the defenceless, for the unborn child has no choice. It is murder, period! When a murder is committed and if the identity is known, it is advertised in paper as "Wanted for Murder" and so why not those who are involved in carrying out the killing of innocents. The fact that it is licensed by the State should not stop those who believe it to be evil from exercising their freedom of expression. The judgment was correct.
William Keevers, USA
I feel that this judgment is only going to put the doctors lives' at risk. These doctors are just doing their job. Some people may not agree with it but it is legal in places and I think on the subject of abortion everyone is entitled to their own opinion.
America is a land of contradictions. On the one hand there is the Freedom of Speech protected by the First Amendment, on the other hand there are the anti-abortionists who will kill anyone whose views are different to theirs. What happened to Freedom to Choose? Was not America founded by the Founding Fathers on the principle of Freedom of Choice: in religion, in politics, in free assembly, in many rights still lacking 250 years later in many so-called democratic countries, most of which are not pre-dominantly WASP - White Anglo-Saxon Protestant.
Censorship? Why is it that for all the very many unusual and interesting things you can see on TV, the one thing the broadcasting authorities won't let you see is a late abortion being performed? Why not, since it is perfectly legal?
Considering that the website in question "crossed off" the name of Dr. Barnett Slepian after he was allegedly murdered by James Kopp, what the court has done is to legalize the murder of those who support a woman's right to choose. But if I were to do a similar website calling for the public execution, after a fair trial, of everyone who opposed a woman's right to choose, would the court protect me? Given the inclinations of the Supreme Court and the Republican Party (as stated in the party's platform for over twenty years), they'd sooner sanction my murder than admit the appellate court's egregious error in this case.
Pascal Jacquemain, UK (French)
Doctors who perform abortions should not be treated any differently as any other doctor. If they are not doing anything immoral or wrong, then why should we make special exceptions? We list paediatricians and brain surgeons on line...why not abortionists? I believe the controversy comes in because deep down in their consciences, they know that the taking of an unborn life totally goes against the Hypocratic Oath. Ask my 9-month unborn life (hiccupping at this very moment) whether it is a "life" or not, and I think you will find a resounding yes. Taking the life of an unborn child is wrong and doctors need to be held accountable for their actions. If it's just a "job" for them, then why are they feeling so guilty?
That's fine as long as pro-choice groups are equally allowed to openly criticise those who harass women who exercise their right to choose and have abortions. Maybe the pro-choice movement can then set up a web site and call pro-lifers fascist dictators?
Why should we be surprised. This state has been inciting people to hate and kill each other, thinly disguised as entertainment for decades. I must search back to find out why Yahoo's Nazi memorabilia site was shut down.
I am a fervent advocate for freedom of speech and the abolition of censorship. However, I feel in this case as much as the anti-abortion groups have the right to publish such details online, the doctors and clinics also have a right to take them to court for any problems arising from such publication. It's only fair.
One wonders if American judges would be equally willing to have their own names and home addresses published on the web by those who disagree with their judgements.
Take your choice:
Quite frankly there shouldn't be any limits on free speech. If limits are enacted on such a fundamental human right, where does it end? Who decides what speech is in fact free of restrictions? The fact of the matter is Free Speech is the cornerstone of a democratic, free society and to limit any speech no matter how inflammatory is editing independent thought. If you don't agree with a position, that's your right, but it is also the right of the individual you disagree with to express beliefs and convictions independent of censorship.
With proper protection of privacy, such a discussion would become moot. Otherwise, it's hard to draw the line where "freedom of speech" tramples over an individual.
Paul Warren, USA
Freedom of speech is a basic right.
However if people have used the information on the website to help in their crimes then they should be tried as accessories. Don't ban them, but make them responsible for their actions...
There is a difference between stating fact and stating opinion.
A factual listing of abortion doctors is a useful list. A list of "baby butchers" surrounded by propaganda is not useful in that context.
If abortion is legal the slander is aimed at the wrong set of people.
But does this apply to all activities of a legal nature? I'm not sure. In this instance I do not see any good coming from the list as is.
Everyone has a right to express their opinion, however no one has a right to impose that opinion on other individuals.
I think a sensible view of this case is shown in the ideas of Libertarian J.S Mill. He said that people had a right to express themselves, as long as what they said or did, did not encroach on the rights of other people. This could apply to anything, therefore personal views on abortion are irrelevant. By posting names and addresses on the internet, it is likely that some of these people will be harmed directly because of the action of the people who published the names.
Kurt Richardson, USA
Setting any limits on free speech is a dangerous path to follow, simply forcing Neo-nazis, extreme 'Pro-Lifers' etc underground. Its better to give these ideas an open platform, so that people who can actually think for themselves.
Even odious, hateful opinions should be allowed free expression. Suppressing them merely bottles the hatred and allows it to fester. Let's bring these opinions into the open so that they can be discussed and ridiculed properly.
This is a perfect example of a flaw in America's obsessive freedom of speech ideology - where the freedom of one person results in the entrapment of another. Given that abortion is legal in much of the USA, surely the abortion doctors themselves have the right to freedom from potential repercussions too?
Robert Gosling, UK
I think this is taking Freedom of Speech too far. When you start affecting innocent people who just happen to be related to an abortionist it takes the whole idea of peaceful protest too far.
Certainly people have a right to free speech, but they must also face the consequences of their actions.
If a crime is committed because of what they said, whether that be information they gave out or through inciting hatred then they are guilty of knowingly aiding the criminal and must suffer the punishment for aiding that crime.
Andrew MacCormack, Scotland
The right of freedom of speech cannot be limited because this takes away from the fundamental meaning of freedom. However this freedom comes with responsibility and thus if any free speech brings about a breach of the law then action can be taken. If the list incites violence then it breaks the law but as a list it is harmless. It's the people who put that information to a harmful use that action should be taken about. Preventative action would lead to a nanny state where censorship is justified because it MAY prevent an event.
There is a clear difference between allowing free speech on a political point and endangering the lives of doctors and their families by publishing their addresses.
This story is the perfect answer to one of your earlier debates on "Why would anyone want to live in Britain". No British magistrate would support such an invasion of privacy or such a blatant attempt to incite hatred and violence.
It seems incredible that a judge can say that listing a person's name, address, car licence plate and anything else under a site called the 'Nuremburg Files' is ok in the interests of free speech. We're talking about practising doctors, not the Holocaust. And we're talking about a woman's sovereignty over her own body. Allowing doctors to be put on a hit list is tantamount to ignoring their rights as citizens.
There is no such thing as free speech look at all the libel laws
Alas, free speech is free speech. You have to take the good and the bad, whether you like it or not. The question really is are we mature enough as a society to deal with it?
I believe the line between free speech and the outlawing of the statements that were made, has been drawn in a fair position. The State has been infiltrating individual rights for far too long. It is not right to punish for making factual information available to others. Some will say that allowing the names and addresses of abortion doctors to be publicised will promote violence. It is no different to the phone directory, albeit more information is given. This typifies the main reason that free speech is protected via the US Constitution - to prevent state intrusions into basic freedoms.
Free speech is a wonderful thing in the hands of sane, rational people with a respect for the lives of others, but this publication of personal details has to be a violation of basic human rights. It's just inviting the most extreme to exact what they would probably see as a just revenge on people that I would see as providing an essential humanitarian service. In my opinion they should be able to say what they like about these doctors in general - but keep the individuals out of it. These murders horrify me as a woman who stands by her right to chose and as a human being
30 Mar 01 | Americas
Free speech protects anti-abortion site
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