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ROBIN ABCARIAN

She's All for Free Speech, but . . .

June 04, 1995|ROBIN ABCARIAN

The incendiary debate over whether talk radio fueled the passions of bomb-building anarchists has burned itself out. For now.

But after perusing the newspaper the other day, it's clear that the war over free speech in America continues on other fronts.

On the first page: The Supreme Court let stand a ruling allowing a state to restrict peaceful picketing at the home of a doctor who performs abortions. In doing so, the court bolstered the efforts of many states and cities (including California and Los Angeles) to curb antiabortion violence by restricting protesters.

Inside the paper: A federal appeals court ruled that revoking the right of a Venice lawyer to practice in federal court was inappropriate. The civil rights lawyer, Stephen Yagman, had severely criticized a federal judge, but the appeals court said the sanction violated the attorney's First Amendment rights.

Test yourself and your commitment to free speech--not just to the ideal of free speech, but to the greasy, grimy reality of it--by gauging your reaction to these news stories.

I cheered both the Supreme Court's restriction of the antiabortion protesters and the federal appeals court's affirmation of the lawyer's right to be obnoxious.

How appalling.

The Court of Consistency finds me guilty of hypocrisy for putting a political issue, one about which I feel passionately (abortion), above the principle of free speech.

What an unattractive quality in someone whose very livelihood depends on free expression.

My punishment? A term in First Amendment re-education camp. I will write one thousand times on my mental blackboard: "I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

I will force myself to think this thought about antiabortion protesters. My sentence will be completed when I can do this without choking.

*

Defending free speech for those with whom you agree is a no-brainer. It's the folks who make you want to bring up a hairball who test your resolve.

At the very least, we can take some joy from the deliciously odd pairing of free expression bedfellows: the ACLU and ultra-conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, for instance.

Or anti-pornography radical feminists and anti-pornography radical Christians, for another.

In last week's Supreme Court action--or inaction, since it involved the court's refusal to hear a New Jersey Supreme Court case--the ACLU (an avid defender of a woman's right to choose abortion) agreed with Scalia (a bitter foe of abortion) that free speech rights were being infringed.

The New Jersey Supreme Court had ruled that antiabortion protesters who peacefully picketed the home of a doctor who performs abortions must stay 100 feet from the residence, and that demonstrations may take place only one hour every other week.

This must have been an immensely pleasing decision to the physician, his family and his neighbors.

But it is wrong.

*

When protesters threaten, or try to prevent women from exercising the right to obtain an abortion, legal action is not only appropriate but necessary.

That's why the 1994 federal Freedom of Access to Clinics Act was such a laudable piece of legislation. It recognized that people who are prevented from exercising a legal right--in this case, obtaining abortions--are effectively denied that right.

By making it a felony to use intimidation or physical violence to obstruct clinics, Congress finally (if belatedly) put its foot down.

Doctors who choose to perform abortions--a heroic decision given the violence being waged against them--should not be harassed or endangered. But peaceful picketing hardly falls into that category.

I do think that antiabortion extremists, by openly encouraging violent acts against decent people behaving in legal ways, have contributed mightily to an atmosphere in which the Supreme Court can restrict a constitutional right with a straight face.

And since the court would not do it for me, I now find myself in the uncomfortable position of defending the rights of people whose views I find abhorrent.

Makes me want to gag, if you must know.

But I'm working on it.

* Robin Abcarian's column is published Wednesdays and Sundays.

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