In a victory for women’s healthcare providers seeking protection from anti-abortion extremism and violence, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals rejected a petition to revise its previous ruling that Angel Dillard, an anti-abortion extremist, must stand trial for a threatening letter she sent to a Kansas doctor in 2011.
The decision, announced Tuesday, upholds an earlier ruling in which a three-judge appeals court panel voted 2-1 to overturn a federal judge’s 2013 conclusion that Dillard’s letter was constitutionally protected free speech. Dillard must now face a jury- not a judge- to determine whether the letter, addressed to Dr. Mila Means, a women’s healthcare provider who had been training to offer abortion services in Wichita at the time, constituted a “true threat” of violence.
The Justice Department filed suit against Dillard in 2011, just two years after the murder of Dr. George Tiller by anti-abortion extremists, for violation of the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act (FACE), a federal law which seeks to protect abortion providers and their patients from harassment and violence. In the letter, Dillard warned Dr. Means that thousands of people across the country were studying her, promising they would learn her “habits and routines.” “They know where you shop, who your friends are, what you drive, where you live,” wrote Dillard. “You will be checking under your car every day – because maybe today is the day someone places an explosive under it.”
At the time she received the letter from Dillard, Dr. Means had been the target of a campaign coordinated by anti-abortion extremist group Operation Rescue (OR) and its leader, Troy Newman, to try and stop her from providing abortions in Wichita. OR first exposed Dr. Means’ name to its followers and to the press and then led efforts to end her plans to provide abortions, which included trespassing into her family practice office, organizing protests outside her office, following her employees home, publishing and circulating WANTED-style posters and emails targeting her, demonstrating at her rural home outside of Wichita, and terrorizing a potential landlord for her new clinic. Dr. Tiller was the target of a similar campaign led by Operation Rescue prior to his murder.
According to a survey conducted by the Feminist Majority Foundation’s National Clinic Access Project and released in January 2014, threats of violence against abortion providers have doubled since 2010, with one in four clinics experiencing anti-abortion activity daily and nearly 14 percent reporting “high-levels of severe violence.”
“The law is clear: threatening abortion providers with stalking, car bombs and murder is not protected speech under the First Amendment,” duVergne Gaines, director of the National Clinic Access Project at the Feminist Majority Foundation, said in a statement in July. “The decision strongly reinforces the integrity of FACE and its use to stop threats and other conduct designed to terrorize and intimidate providers and patients.”
Media Resources: CJ News 9/29/15; NCAP Survey 2014; Feminist Newswire 8/3/15;