Institute Attorneys Say Use of RICO Act Unfairly Criminalizes Protestors and Violates Their First Amendment Right to Free Speech
WASHINGTON, D.C.--Attorneys for The Rutherford Institute have filed a friend of the court brief with the U.S. Supreme Court in Scheidler v. National Organization for Women, the most significant pro-life protest case to come before the Court in several years. The justices will decide whether the Constitution allows abortion providers to use the courts to prosecute pro-life protestors under the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, which was originally created to combat organized crime. RICO outlaws "racketeering activity," including extortion. Abortion providers have used RICO to argue that pro-life protestors are "extorting" the right of abortion from clinic owners and patients in the same way that mobsters extort money from shop owners, and the courts have imposed crushing fines on protesters as a result. Rutherford Institute attorneys argue that using RICO criminalizes the protestors and violates their First Amendment right to free speech.
In the 1994 case NOW v. Scheidler, the Supreme Court rejected the argument that RICO could not apply to political protestors. As a result, many abortion protestors have been hesitant to protest. The Supreme Court is now set to review the case against three pro-life protest leaders and their organizations for their efforts to demonstrate outside Chicago area abortion clinics. The protestors were ordered to pay over $85,000 to two abortion clinics. Although the abortion providers did not prove that the protestors were part of an organized "extortion" ring, the trial court allowed them to link the protestors' actions to various violent acts committed by other anti-abortion protesters. The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the decision, ruling that protestors violated federal extortion law, the Hobbs Act, even though the law requires proof that the accused individuals sought to obtain the "property" of another person, which was clearly not the intent of the protestors.
"The appeals court's broad reading of the definition of 'extortion' poses an unacceptable threat to the First Amendment free speech rights of protestors and demonstrators across the political spectrum," said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute. "Conceivably, the Court of Appeals' decision could chill the speech of not only pro-life protestors, but union organizers and picketers, civil rights activists, environmental activists and globalization opponents. The resulting public landscape, though undoubtedly quite a bit more peaceable, would in no way resemble a place for 'robust, uninhibited and wide-open' debate that the First Amendment was intended to protect."
The Rutherford Institute is an international, nonprofit civil liberties organization committed to defending constitutional and human rights.