That pesky old First Amendment

anti-abortion-activists1First things first, just to get an obvious point out of the way. Don't you just love it when reporters are covering a debate about a controversial issue and people on one side are simply allowed to state their beliefs and share information, while people on the other side are quoted in statements in which they "insist" that what they are saying is true and then key parts of their remarks are framed in those "scare quotes" that let you know that the reporters are typing with their fingers crossed?

Well, the New York Times has run a story about anti-abortion protesters at a health center in the South Bronx that uses these too-familiar techniques -- a bit. The story also has a rather big hole in it, that I will note in a minute.

But that's not the lede. Let me state right up front that, as Times stories go on culture wars topics, this one is about as fair as it gets. There was an honest attempt to listen to both sides and, quite frankly, I think it's pretty apparent that the majority of the anti-abortion protesters are playing by the rules of polite engagement. Are there some who are not? The clinic workers say so, but the Times does not offer evidence through its own reporting.

The problem is that the rules are about to change. Thus, the headline: "Anti-Abortion Activists Worry That a New City Law Will Make Their Task Harder." Here's the crucial chunk of the story:

About 80,000 abortions are done annually in New York City, according to state health statistics, but these days it is far from the center of the national abortion debate. The city is not known for abortion-related violence. ... But 36 years after Roe v. Wade, the abortion war goes on, even in a small way in New York, where next month, a new city law will take effect that could make it easier for anti-abortion demonstrators to be arrested if they restrict access to a clinic or harass people attempting to enter.

The law currently allows the police to make arrests only if the person directly affected -- usually a woman entering a clinic for an abortion -- is willing to press charges. The new law allows third parties, such as clinic workers, to press charges if they witness the activity.

The protesters, of course, worry about losing their First Amendment rights, the rights they would be allowed to use on public sidewalks while protesting at a nuclear-weapons facility, outside the Pentagon or, when it's finished, the George W. Bush Presidential Library.

Now, the clinic workers are in charge of the legal process. This is bad for the protesters, since, as the Times puts it:

One thing is clear: Workers at the clinic want them gone. ... Inside the clinic, a piece of paper taped to a door offers more advice: "Tell abortion protesters to mind their own business. This is America."

And there's the rub: This is America. One person's harassment is another person's quiet presentation of a pamphlet about alternatives to abortion. One person's rosary is another person's weapon. And how about that van around the corner, the one in which women entering the clinic are offered free ultrasounds of their unborn children?

3d-4d-ultrasound-before-1So on one side you have these voices:

Clinic workers told Naral that monks in robes would harass women as they got off the subway, or protesters would surround them as they walked to the clinic. "We're still very concerned," Kelli M. Conlin, the president of Naral in New York, said in an interview. "The protests in New York continue unabated."

Joan Malin, the president and chief executive of Planned Parenthood of New York City, said loud demonstrators were an regular presence outside the organization's three clinics in the city. "We're not against people demonstrating," she said. "But there is a line between freedom of speech and harassment and bullying."

Of course, there are questions. What does "harass" mean? What does "loud" mean? Are there standards? That's where we need some hard facts, some quotes from the laws themselves that attempt to define these terms.

The story then quotes people on the other side, including New Yorkers there in the neighborhood who have grown to admire activist Julie Beyel and the commitment of her team from this "Expectant Mother Care" organization.

Then we have this testimony:

The people outside Dr. Emily's, who pray the rosary and sing "Amazing Grace" when they are bored, insist that they have never harassed or intimidated people entering clinics. Sometimes they try to persuade women to enter a run-down white R.V., parked across the street from a White Castle around the corner, where they offer free ultrasounds. ...

Shatih Tyner, 15, was steps away from entering the clinic with her boyfriend when Ms. Beyel stopped them on the sidewalk and persuaded Ms. Tyner to have an ultrasound. After emerging from the R.V., Ms. Tyner decided against an abortion.

"It changed my mind, the sonogram, because I've seen my baby and I want to keep it," she said on her way back to the subway.

Yes, they "insist" that they don't harass people or pray the rosary too loud, out on the public sidewalks. They "insist" that's the case, while the clinic works merely report the details about the dangerous monks in white robes.

Still the story contains some interesting voices and let's hope that the Times keeps listening to candid, responsible people on both sides.

It's clear that this law is going to create a crisis linked to the First Amendment. That's a very important story, because this is America.

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