Jewish World Review Feb. 18, 2003 / 16 Adar I 5763

Paul Greenberg

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To kill an idea, file suit | Freedom makes strange bedfellows. And a bunch of them got together the other day to argue their case before the Supreme Court of the United States. Pro-life demonstrators, animal-rights protesters, Greenpeace types, Hollywood activists-in-general like Martin Sheen . all were on the same side this time, that of the First Amendment.

There may not have been a more disparate crew assembled since Noah's Ark took float. These different political species had all lined up against an attempt to use the federal racketeering laws to break up a pro-life demonstration.

How did this miracle happen? It all started in 1986, when one Joseph Scheidler, a former Benedictine monk, walked into a Milwaukee abortuary along with three ministers to announce that he was planning to demonstrate there the next day. Result: He was found guilty of trespass -- by a judge who also commended him for his nonviolent methods. Here was a classic instance of civil disobedience: protest and punishment. And it should have ended there.

But it was only beginning. Because the National Organization for Women saw an opportunity to get its man under what's called the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, which was drawn up with organized crime in mind. The notorious Scheidler gang was accused of, yes, racketeering.

A judge in Chicago threw out the case -- free speech and all that -- but NOW persevered till it got that ruling overturned and a $258,000 judgment against the protesters. On the ground that they were engaged in an extortion racket against the abortion clinic. Who says free speech is free?

Jonathan Turley, who teaches constitutional law at George Washington University, began his comment on this curious case by citing an historical footnote and irony: "In 1986, two alleged racketeers were hauled into federal courts in New York and Chicago. One was John Gotti, the head of the murderous Gambino crime family. The other was Joseph Scheidler, a former Benedictine monk and pro-life protester. Only one was found liable as a racketeer: the former monk."

It makes you wonder if you're watching the law in action or the theater of the absurd. Who wrote this script, Ionesco?

Not just freedom but suppression makes strange bedfellows. The Bush administration joined NOW before the Supreme Court in defending the legal judgment against Joseph Scheidler. And soon Solicitor General Ted Olson, whom you may remember from the bollixed presidential election of 2000, was back before the high court arguing, with a straight face, that the "First Amendment is not an issue in this case." The First Amendment is the essence of this case, unless you seriously believe that Joe Scheidler was running some kind of protection racket. The purpose of hauling him and his few assets into court isn't to break up the rackets in Chicago, but to intimidate protesters -- a kind of ideological extortion itself.

Behind this strategy is a delusion even more profound than believing the First Amendment doesn't protect freedom of speech or peaceable assembly. It's the belief that, if you can find a way to break the protesters, the protests will cease.

Those pushing this punitive tactic don't understand that they're fighting an idea, not a racket. And that this blatant attempt to suppress free speech will produce only more martyrs. And more sympathy for the protesters.

You don't have to be against abortion to understand what is going on here, and to see that, if a pro-life protest can be squelched by using a law never intended for that purpose, so can other protests. Which explains why this defendant has attracted so many unlikely allies, including groups that favor abortion.

If abortion clinics are under assault, if their doctors and nurses are being attacked, as they have been, there are laws against assault, arson and murder. And they should be enforced. Vigorously. Just as the law against trespass was enforced in this case.

But a peaceful expression of opinion should not be confused with a criminal racket, not in a free country. Or else we're all in trouble with the law.

Joe Scheidler has done this kind of thing before. He's a repeat offender: As a young man, he marched with Martin Luther King Jr. at Selma. The inspiration for his sit-ins and other demonstrations against abortion comes straight out of the old civil rights movement.

That's something else those trying to break the pro-life movement don't understand: its moral force and antecedents. Which is why they have been reduced to using the law as a cudgel, as though you could kill an idea with a lawsuit. Can't be done. Life goes on.

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