July 30, 2015 — The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday ruled an antiabortion-rights activist in Kansas must face trial over a threatening letter she sent to an abortion provider, overturning a lower court ruling that deemed the letter an expression of free speech, AP/Miami Herald reports (Hegeman, AP/Miami Herald, 7/29).
In 2011, the Department of Justice filed a civil lawsuit against activist Angel Dillard under the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act after she wrote the letter to Mila Means, who was training to offer abortion services in Wichita. Wichita had not had an abortion provider since the murder of George Tiller.
In the letter, Dillard wrote that thousands of people nationwide were scrutinizing Means' background, adding, "They know where you shop, who your friends are, what you drive, where you live." The letter continued, "You will be checking under your car every day -- because maybe today is the day someone places an explosive under it."
In 2013, a federal judge ruled that Dillard's letter was constitutionally protected as free speech and did not constitute a "true threat." The DOJ Civil Rights Division appealed the ruling (Women's Health Policy Report, 10/11/13).
According to the AP/Herald, Means eventually decided that she would not offer abortion care at her clinic.
On Tuesday, a three-judge panel of the 10th Circuit ruled 2-1 to overturn the lower court decision, ruling that a jury reasonably could find the letter constituted a legitimate threat of violence. The court also denied Dillard's argument that the government's suit against her violated her freedom of speech.
The decision stated, "The context in this case includes Wichita's past history of violence against abortion providers, the culmination of this violence in Dr. Tiller's murder less than two years before [Dillard] mailed her letter, [Dillard's] publicized friendship with Dr. Tiller's killer, and her reported admiration of his convictions."
Further, the ruling noted that Means "believed that [Dillard's] admiration of" Tiller's killer, antiabortion-rights activist Scott Roeder, "suggested a likelihood that she too would go 'from protester to murderer,' and she remained very anxious that [Dillard] or her associates would indeed place an explosive under her car as suggested by the letter" (AP/Miami Herald, 7/29).