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Suit over abortion doctors' IDs on Web

A federal case that opened this week could decide whether Web sites that identify hundreds of abortion doctors are protected by the First Amendment.

A federal case that opened this week could decide whether anti-abortion Web sites and "wanted posters" that identify hundreds of abortion doctors are protected by the First Amendment or should be banned for allegedly inciting violence.

Planned Parenthood has joined medical facilities and five doctors in a civil lawsuit against the American Coalition of Life Activists. Jury selection in the case began yesterday in U.S. District Court in Oregon, with all parties under a strict gag order.

The trial marks the latest battle over privacy and abortion to spill onto the Net. In another case this week, a Florida abortion clinic sued America Online's CompuServe, charging that anti-abortion activists obtained access to private patient information through the online service.

"We've had seven Abortion clinic sues Compuserve murders of physicians since 1993 as a result of anti-choice violence, and two of those deaths were preceded by wanted posters and Web sites that encourage people to gather information about abortion providers so that other people can target them for harm," said Vickie Saporta, executive director National Abortion Federation, which represents clinics and doctors and supports Planned Parenthood's case.

The Nuremberg Files, which was created by Neal Horsley of Carrollton, Georgia, is one such site that lists the names of abortion doctors and clinic workers from around the country and calls for "baby butchers" to be "brought to justice."

The site urges people to send "photos or videotapes of the abortionist, their car, their house, friends, and anything else of interest, as many and as recent as possible."

In some instances, the Nuremberg Files lists doctors' physical characteristics, home addresses, and the names of their children and spouses. A handful of names on the list are crossed out to mark a "fatality," including New York physician Dr. Barnett Slepian, who was killed in his kitchen by a sniper bullet in October.

"Within hours after Dr. Slepian's murder, his name was crossed off the list," Saporta said. "It's not about free speech. They are encouraging people to kill doctors, and they are able to reach a lot more people through the Internet."

Planned Parenthood cites the 1994 Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act (FACE) in its lawsuit, which "makes it illegal to incite violence against abortion doctors and their patients," according to the Justice Department.

Abortion foes who support the Nuremberg Files and similar Web sites say the publications don't advocate the murder of doctors and are protected by free-speech provisions of the First Amendment.

"This site is compiling the list as evidence so that when abortion is recognized for what it is--a crime against humanity--there will be evidence to try these [doctors]," said Rev. Donald Spitz, the founder of Pro-Life Virginia, who calls death-row inmate Paul Hill a hero for murdering Florida abortion doctor John Bayard Britton and his escort Jim Barret.

"There is no link between this site and the abortionists who have been killed," Spitz added. "People who shoot abortionists do it because [the doctors] are killing babies--not because their name is on a list."

The controversy over the Nuremberg Files is similar to the debate over online hate speech. In some cases, Internet service providers have shut down Web sites after complaints about racist or bigoted content, potentially stepping outside the law to draw free-speech boundaries for the Net.

Still, the American Medical Association labeled the Nuremberg Files a "hit list" and personally called all the physicians on the list to warn them about it, in addition to meeting with the Justice Department and FBI about the issue.

"Violence is never an acceptable way to resolve the philosophical, moral, and religious differences we share as individuals," AMA vice chair Ted Lewers said in a statement. "The AMA strongly condemns violence against all physicians and health care workers involved in any aspect of the legal practice of medicine."

In a preliminary ruling that pushed the Planned Parenthood case forward, U.S. District Judge Robert Jones "held that the threats of violence in the complaint did go beyond the realm of political rhetoric and are not protected under the First Amendment," according to the pro-abortion organization.

Reformation Lutheran Church pastor Michael Bray, who is named as a defendant and spent four years in prison for a series of abortion clinic bombings, calls the case an attempt to silence critics. He argues that the site doesn't explicitly call for the execution of doctors, though Bray himself has called the killing of clinic workers and doctors "justifiable homicide" in his book A Time to Kill.

"We're saying, 'Look to the future--let's get a historical perspective and gather information,'" Bray said. "And if it makes the [doctors] look like villains, then that is fine too--because that is the truth."