A Portland, Oregon, federal jury has rendered a one-hundred and eight million dollar judgment against twelve pro-life activists. The February 1, 1999, judgment came after a three week trial which resulted from a lawsuit filed by four abortionists and two Planned Parenthood abortion clinics.
Two members of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) were major players in the lawsuit. One of them is Mr. Mike Hirsh, an Atlanta attorney who represented two of the defendants. A graduate of Auburn University and Regent School of Law, Mr. Hirsh has been active in pro-life cases. He attends Cherokee Presbyterian Church, Woodstock, Ga., while currently holding membership at Calvary Reformed Presbyterian Church, Hampton, Va.
One of his clients was the Rev. Mr. Joe Foreman, a pro-life activist who had previously spent time in jail for his acts of civil disobedience with regard to abortion. The PCA minister is Stated Clerk of Pacific Presbytery and Pastor of Foothills Presbyterian Church, San Bernardino, Calif. He is also a son-in-law of Dr. Edmund P. Clowney, former President of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.
The involvement of Mr. Foreman in this matter was minimal. According to his lawyer, all that the pastor did was to draft the constitution for one of the organizations targeted by the lawsuit-a document which pledged non-violence. Indeed, Mr. Foreman's intent in drafting the constitution was to provide an organization where non-violent protestors of abortion could find a home. Mr. Hirsh dryly commented: "No good deed goes unpunished."
At the center of the lawsuit were three publications: two posters and an internet website. According to Mr. Hirsh, the website was not directly connected with the defendants or the two organizations named in the lawsuit. One of those organizations, American Coalition of Life Activists (ACLA), had appeared on the website as a supporting organization. But the man responsible for the website testified that he did not have the permission of ACLA to place its name on his site; and as soon as ACLA became aware of this unauthorized use of its name, it notified the man, who promptly removed the name. Nevertheless, the jury found that ACLA was responsible for that material on the Internet.
The two posters, according to Mr. Hirsh, made no threatening statements. The posters referred to certain abortion providers as abortionists; and made the historical point that some of the defendants at the Nuremburg War Crimes trials were found guilty of performing abortions. The posters, looking forward to a day when a tribunal may mete out similar justice on present-day abortionists, offered a $500 reward for information which would lead to the arrest and conviction of abortionists and the revocation of their licenses to practice medicine.
In this instance, the cost of free speech was quite high. All of the defendants were found guilty of violating the FACE (Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances) Act, and all but two were found guilty of violating the RICO (Racketeering, Influenced, and Corrupt Organizations) Act. The awards by the jury were way out of line, according to the defense attorney. For example, one of the compensatory judgments was $375, but the punitive award in that matter was $750,000-astronomically exceeding the normal one-to-four ratio between compensatory and punitive damages. The barrister stated that even pro-abortion Constitutional scholars believe that the awards are clearly excessive.
The aim of the lawsuit, in his opinion, is to shut down "peaceful, non-violent protest." None of the defendants is rich. The lawsuit, therefore, was not so much about winning money, but about intimidating others into silence. If the judgment is upheld, says Mr. Hirsh, anybody who referred to abortion as murder could be successfully sued by abortionists.
In his estimation, the method utilized in this endeavor overthrew all precedent in terms of free speech rights, in that the basis for claiming damages has dramatically changed. Instead of having an objective basis (that is, the words themselves), or even a subjective basis (what did the person mean by those words?), the criteria have now become hearer-based (how do I, the plaintiff, construe what you said?).
The plaintiffs employed a huge New York City law firm. According to Attorney Hirsh, Planned Parenthood Federation of America was funding this effort. He opined: "I bet you a cup of coffee that they spent in the seven digits."
The high-paid New York attorneys chose Portland, Oregon, as the site for the lawsuit-a choice that was quite deliberate, said Mr. Hirsh. In his eyes, the jury pool would tend to favor the type of judgment rendered.
He expects that the Ninth Circuit will overturn the verdict. However, even if it doesn't, he remains optimistic that the U. S. Supreme Court will.
Only a small fraction-about one percent-of cases taken to the high court is heard by the nine justices. But in his opinion, this case has "all the benchmarks of a Supreme Court case." Those tell-tale signs include the fact that the federal circuit courts are divided on the questions raised in the case; and the fact that there are, in his words, "pretty interesting issues of Constitutional dynamics."
Whatever the judicial outcome, Mr. Hirsh is optimistic about the final disposition of the abortion dispute. He notes that the "pro-aborts are contracepting and aborting themselves out of existence." Meanwhile, his own plan for exercising dominion over the earth includes procreation. And as the father of eleven children, he has been putting that plan into effect.
The Rev. Mr. Joseph Foreman
PO Box 583, Sky Forest, Calif. 92385
Mr. Michael Hirsh, Esq.