A Kansas anti-abortion extremist will have to stand trial for threats made against a doctor planning to provide abortions, a federal appeals court ruled on Tuesday.
In a powerful decision for abortion providers being threatened by extremists, the 10th US Circuit Court of Appeals found in a 2-1 ruling that a jury – not a judge – should determine whether or not a 2011 letter Angel Dillard sent to Dr. Mila Means constitutes a true threat actionable under the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act. The ruling overturns a lower court’s summary decision that Dillard’s letter was constitutionally protected free speech.
“This decision sends a critical message to extremists across the country,” said Feminist Majority Foundation National Clinic Access Project director duVergne Gaines. “The law is clear: threatening abortion providers with stalking, car bombs and murder is not protected speech under the First Amendment. 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. We applaud the Department of Justice’s commitment to prosecute extremists like Dillard and protect abortion providers across the country.”
The Department of Justice brought a civil FACE lawsuit against Dillard after she sent a threatening letter to Dr. Means, a family practitioner who was in training to provide abortions in Wichita. “We will not let this abomination continue without doing everything we can to stop it,” Dillard wrote. “You will be checking under your car everyday – because maybe today is the day someone places an explosive under it.” At the time the letter was sent, abortion services had not been available in Wichita since May of 2009, when Dr. George Tiller was murdered by anti-abortion extremist Scott Roeder.
The Appeals court decision corrected the lower court’s two key findings when granting summary judgment for Dillard, stating that it did not matter that the threats contained in Dillard’s letter were conditional because many “true threats” are conditional and are not protected by the First Amendment. Secondly, the Appeals court stated it did not matter whether or not Dillard intended to carry out the threats contained in her letter; the letter could still be construed by a jury to intentionally threaten and intimidate Dr. Means out of providing safe legal abortions.
Critically, the appeals court also declared that “the context in this case includes Wichita’s past history of violence against abortion providers, the culmination of this violence in Dr. Tiller’s murder less than two years before Defendant mailed her letter, Defendant’s publicized friendship with Dr. Tiller’s killer [Scott Roeder], and her reported admiration of his convictions.” Dillard had developed a relationship with Roeder while he was awaiting trial for the murder of Dr. Tiller, and visited him several times in jail. She even declared to the Associated Press in a 2009 interview that she admired Roeder for having “followed his convictions.”
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 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.
There is a longstanding history of violence against abortion providers by anti-abortion extremists and historically, these kinds of threats have often preceded serious crimes of violence, including murder. The Foundation’s 2014 National Clinic Violence Survey shows that since 2010, the distribution of WANTED-style posters, pamphlets and online postings targeting doctors and clinic staff, and featuring provider’s photographs, home addresses, and other personal information, has almost doubled from impacting 27% to 52% of clinics. Nearly 1 in 5 abortion providers in the U.S. are the targets of severe violence.
FMF’s National Clinic Access Project is the largest of its kind in the U.S., leading efforts nationwide to keep women’s health clinics open in the face of violence and intimidation and to bring anti-abortion terrorists to justice. Read more about the history of the NCAP project.
Media Resources: 2014 NCAP Survey; Feminist Majority Foundation Press Release 6/19/09