Prominent anti-abortion activist Angel Dillard will stand trial for the contents of a 2011 letter which threatened the life of Kansas doctor, Mila Means, who was planning to offer abortion procedures.
“Thousands of people are already looking into your background, not just in Wichita, but from all over the U.S.,” read Dillard’s letter to Means. “They will know your habits and routines. They know where you shop, who your friends are, what you drive, where you live. You will be checking under your car because everyday-because maybe today is the day someone places an explosive under it.”
The Tenth Circuit Court overturned a 2013 federal ruling in Dillard’s favor last week, meaning the influential Kansas activist will now face a jury of her peers to decide if the letter contained “true means” of threat against Means in violation of the Freedom of Access to Clinical Entrance Act. FACE protects those seeking to provide or receive reproductive health opportunities against “the use or threat of force and physical obstruction that injures, intimidates, or interferes with a person seeking to obtain or provide reproductive health services.”
The court originally sided with Dillard on grounds of First Amendment free speech rights, stating that the letter did not clearly prove that violence against Means was probably or imminent, despite the text of the letter that threatened Mean’s safety and professional wellbeing.
According to the court, the language was not specific enough to warrant full prosecution. “To be a true threat, a communication must reasonably suggest that the sender is a participant in the proposed violence. The court also concluded that, in this case, the letter did not satisfy that standard because the letter does not refer to any violent action by Dillard,” stated the appeal brief.
Now, with the above ruling overturned and Dillard heading to trial, pro-choice and FACE Act advocates are hopeful for a crackdown on violence and proposed violence against abortion providers.
“This decision sends a critical message to extremists across the country,” said duVergne Gaines, Feminist Majority Foundation National Clinic Access Project director, in a statement to Ms. Magazine. “The law is clear: threatening abortion providers with stalking, car bombs and murder is not protected speech under the First Amendment. The decision strongly reinforces the integrity of FACE and its use to stop threats and other conduct designed to terrorize and intimidate providers and patients.”
Threats, harassment, and acts of violence are concerningly commonplace for abortion facilities and staff, with one in four clinics experiencing anti-abortion activity on a daily basis and nearly 14 percent experiencing severe, high-levels of violence and harassment according to the 2014 National Clinic Violence Survey.
Eight clinic workers have been murdered in the U.S. in the last 21 years, including Dr. George Tiller, who was killed while handing out service bulletins at his Wichita church in 2009. Dillard has publicly praised Tiller’s killer, Scott Roeder for his “conviction” and has since visited him in prison multiple times — a relationship which Means reportedly said, “magnifies the concern of the threat” when she testified in 2011.
While Dillard still has the ability to appeal the Tenth Court’s decision, the likelihood of Dillard receiving trial-by-jury is a promising step towards greater prosecution of FACE Act violations and greater threats against reproductive health providers.
Katelyn Harrop is an intern with ThinkProgress.