Philip “Flip” Benham, director of Operation Save America, is on trial in North Carolina for one of his nation-saving operations, namely distributing “wanted” posters for abortion doctors, including names, photos, and addresses, at the doctors’ offices and neighborhoods. Other recent patriotic missions from the group, formerly known as Operation Rescue, included burning copies of the Koran, forcing Muslim leaders in Connecticut to seek police protection, and gloating over Dr. George Tiller’s murder in Kansas last year. Benham says his posters aren’t a threat: “What we put on the poster were their pictures and then, ‘Wanted by Jesus to stop killing babies.’” Right, who could be incited to violence from something as reasonable as insinuating that God hates this murderer, with an address attached? Abortion-rights advocates point out a history of violence tied from those types of posters, which haven’t been circulated since several doctors who performed abortions were murdered in the nineties. In light of Tiller’s death, one of the men that Benham has singled out says he fears for his life.
This is the first prosecution under the state’s new residential picketing law, which protects individuals from being targeted at their homes. Because the charges against Benham are from the city and state, it might make it easier to win where cases in the past have run up against the First Amendment. In a similar trial from 2002, a federal appeals court found “wanted” posters a “true threat” and not free speech. But the Supreme Court declined to hear the case. The justices are, however, currently hearing arguments against the Westboro Baptist Church, which picketed the funeral of a soldier killed in Iraq because they thought he was gay. In that example, the court is weighing how far states and private institutions can go to justify zones that prohibit picketing.
Of course, the difficult thing with free speech is that when you curb it for one side of the debate, it gets curbed for yours too. These two trials should be ones to watch in terms of weighing protection from harassment and extremism versus First Amendment rights.