Is True Social Discourse “Terrifying?”

Since the free speech rights of pro-life advocates are on review at the Supreme Court this term, there has been increased media discussion on the issue of abortion as well as the issue of free speech.  The coverage leaves one wondering, is it possible to have civil discourse over highly charged moral issues? Or does the State have to create arbitrary boundaries to keep the discussion peaceful? In an effort to bolster the case for bubble zones and buffer zones, pro-abortion forces have been highlighting alleged misbehavior by pro-life advocates. They allege “scare” tactics, name-calling, and attempts to prevent women from entering abortion clinics by over-zealous pro-life advocates. For example, the Huffington Post published an article and video discussing the experiences of abortion clinic escorts—the clinic employees or volunteers who take women to and from clinic entrances, with the mission of “insulating” them from pro-life messages.

While in no way endorsing violent or criminal behavior by pro-life speakers, there are numerous reasons to question the veracity of some of the tales told in this regard. For example, if this type of bad conduct is so regular and so pervasive, why isn’t there video footage documenting it? Is it in fact that the conduct is not so bad and not so pervasive as alleged? Pro-life advocates respond to the assertions of misbehavior by telling their side of the story. Pro-abortion escorts routinely block driveways, sidewalks and physically confront pro-life advocates. When pro-life advocate Walter Hoye stood alone on the sidewalk in front of an Oakland, California clinic, pro-abortion escorts held poster board over his sign, and surrounded him so completely that he could not be seen by a passing observer. Escort behavior does not always stop with efforts to mask the pro-life message—often the actions become outright violence. Even within the past year, we have seen situation after situation of pro-abortion forces committing criminal acts against peaceful pro-life advocates.

This tendency toward misbehavior—even by pro-abortion forces—was mentioned during oral argument in the McCullen v. Massachusetts case. Counsel for the State of Massachusetts cited pro-abortion disturbances as a reason for having buffer-zones. Her opinion was that requiring space between opposing speakers was the solution—even at the cost of removing one set of speakers so far from their audience as to be ineffective. The good news, of course, is that an audience’s bad reaction or “heckler’s veto” to an unpopular message cannot be a reason for restraining the speech. Hopes run high that the Supreme Court will reject this argument once and for all.

Pro-abortion misbehavior will erupt wherever the truth about abortion is made known. For example, last week at UC Santa Barbara a professor went berserk when she ran into a group of pro-life students with signs showing the truth about abortion. As this, and so many other examples show, true civil discourse is not terrifying—but violent criminal responses to civil discourse can be.