Opinion: Why we must defend vile scum
I can easily understand why civil liberties groups in the USA have been reluctant to condemn the censoring of the anti-abortion Nuremberg Files website. But they are wrong.
The US court ruling, that the operators of an internet website displaying Wild West-style 'wanted' posters of abortion doctors should pay $107 million in damages, is a blow against freedom of expression. That the truth is painful does not make it any less truthful. It is easy to condemn the censorship of those that you agree with; far harder to defend those you believe are the scum of the Earth - especially when they cause colleagues to live in fear of their lives. But, in this case, defend them we must. The precedents established by this court ruling are too terrible to ignore.
Let us be clear: the website is despicable, perverted and offensive. It argued that abortion doctors should be tried for crimes against humanity (hence the name, Nuremberg Files). It listed personal details of more than 200 doctors, and invited supporters to update with information about their addresses, telephone numbers, names and ages of children, car registration numbers and so on.
Family-planning organisations have described the site as a 'hit list for terrorists' and launched a lawsuit following the death of Barnett Slepian, a doctor from upstate New York who was shot in his kitchen by a sniper last October. Like other doctors attacked by anti-abortion activists, his name was crossed out from the site in hours, and - in the face of national outrage - the website warned: 'Those who slaughter God's children without affording them due process of law need to understand they are going to be held accountable.'
The actions of anti-abortion terrorists in America have had a profound effect on those who work in reproductive healthcare. The National Abortion Federation says that seven doctors have been murdered in recent years, and they are aware of 16 attempted murders. There have been 39 bombings of abortion clinics and 99 recorded acid attacks. It is a fact that in some US states, for doctors involved in abortion care, a bullet-proof vest is as essential as a speculum.
Doctors' fear of violence and intimidation has seriously undermined the provision of abortion care in America. The number of doctors prepared to specialise in abortion care has fallen dramatically. Some states have no provider at all. A woman requiring procedures later in pregnancy may have to cross state lines. So, although women have a constitutional right to early abortion, gaining access to it is increasingly difficult. One of the reasons why the abortion pill is so eagerly anticipated in America is that it could be given discreetly in a doctor's office.
But even so, those of us who value freedom of expression cannot afford to abandon the principle in this case for two important reasons.
First, the court decision blurs lines of individual accountability and responsibility. As one thoughtful correspondent to the Guardian correctly argued: 'The Nuremberg Files website does not cause a person to murder a doctor. The medium is not the murderer. We are autonomous individuals responsible for our actions.' This is surely right. To hold the website responsible for violence subtracts from the responsibility of the person who wields the gun.
Editorialising on the issue, the Guardian rehearsed a famous argument on the limits of free speech once put by US justice Oliver Wendell Holmes - that nobody has the right to shout 'fire' in a crowded theatre. But this is an incomparable situation. When somebody shouts 'fire' you have no choice but to run - but potential murderers drawing inspiration from this sick website have every choice.
Secondly, it is already evident how the justifiable outrage at the Nuremberg Files can be diverted into calls for further censorship. As the Independent commented, the site is 'certainly highly offensive. Many websites are'. The paper went on to invoke examples of 'vile pornography' and race-hate sites, with the suggestion that deterrents have to be found to these too. 'To suggest that a way might be found to control the worst excesses of the internet is not to make an argument for censorship', protests the leader-writer. Unfortunately it does, if it means prohibiting copy or prosecuting those who post sites. Freedom of expression has to be absolute - or it does not exist at all.
Reproduced from LM issue 118, March 1999