John P. Cronan


Few, if any, political debates kindle stronger convictions and more impassioned activism than abortion. Every year, approximately 50,000 abortion activists assemble at the annual “March for Life” in Washington. Members of Congress are inundated with calls and letters from constituents expressing their views on abortion. The entrances of abortion clinics across the country are routinely blockaded by picket lines of protesters. Still other activists channel their convictions through service, ranging from volunteering at pro-life counseling clinics to caring for foster children. While most abortion activists choose peaceful demonstration, the sad reality is that a small group of extremists consider aggression to be the most desirable solution. This growing proclivity toward aggression has given rise to a disturbing increase in violence against abortion providers and clinics in recent years.

Concomitantly, society has undergone another phenomenon: the growth of the Internet. The number of Internet users has doubled in every year since 1993 and today has burgeoned to approximately 200 million worldwide. Like many controversial debates, abortion has found its way into cyberspace. A quick Internet search will reveal countless newsgroups, listserves, and websites championing pro-life and pro-choice propaganda. Another consequence of the Internet, however, has been the emergence of websites and discussion groups presenting views that many find abhorrent. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a leading monitor of hate speech on the Web, the number of websites featuring hate speech has ballooned from one in 1995 to 250 today. These developments test our commitment to the First Amendment, an essential cornerstone upon which our democracy rests, as they may force us to tolerate websites that most find repulsive in the name of free speech.

These two forces, the increase in violence toward abortion providers and the constitutional call to protect cyberspace speech, recently came to a head in a lawsuit surrounding a controversial anti-abortion website. This website, commonly known as the “Nuremburg Files,” provided a list of abortion doctors with personal information in a manner that some have considered tantamount to a “hit list.” In response, a coalition of pro-choice organizations and physicians listed on the “Nuremburg Files” brought action against several pro-life organizations and individuals associated with the website, alleging that the website constitutes a threat to their safety. On February 2, 1999, the plaintiffs prevailed in the first round of the battle, winning a $ 107 million jury verdict in Planned Parenthood v. American Coalition of Life Advocates. An appeal from the defendants seems imminent. In fact, some believe this case invokes sufficiently serious constitutional implications to make its way to the United States Supreme Court.