In an interview, NOW lead attorney Fay Clayton declined to predict the outcome of the oral arguments Wednesday, but numerous "friend of the court" briefs say that if abortion protests can be labeled as extortion, then all protest — including the youthful anti-globalization foes of the World Trade Organization and Greenpeace's protests against the use of seal fur — is imperiled.
"What's at stake is the First Amendment right of free speech," says Seattle lawyer Theresa Schrempp. "NOW is alleging that extremely minor criminal conduct — jaywalking, trespassing, standing on the steps of an abortion clinic — constitutes extortion under RICO," the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. "Showing up at regular political protests are being catapulted into a major felony," she says. "It's like being in the middle of a Kafka-esque novel. Even parking in front of an abortion clinic — in a public parking space — is being called 'an extortionate act.'"
The huge fines for being charged under RICO — which allows injured parties to sue for triple damages — dissuades all protesters because, "People say it's not worth the risk to be part of something like this," she says. Therefore, activist groups such as the Seamless Garment Network, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Catholic Worker houses and the Sojourners community are among at least 40 individuals and two dozen organizations that have joined the case as "friends of the court." If access is denied to protest abortions, then access will be denied to protest other matters, according to one brief from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.