The other day, a friend called my attention to the case of Linda Gibbons, who has spent a great deal of time in jail in connection with picketing abortion clinics. My friend was concerned about what he sees as hypocrisy among civil liberty groups who have not rallied to defend Ms. Gibbon's free speech, apparently because it's speech that goes against the right to have an abortion which civil liberty groups support.
I was troubled by this as well at first, and still am to some extent. My own view is that freedom of speech is the most basic, most fundamental, most indispensable right in any society that aspires to being in any way just. I've long held that the proper approach to things like hate speech is to counter it forcefully with intelligent and persuasive criticism, rather than to attempt to silence it through censorship. So my gut feeling is that people ought to be permitted to peacefully express their opinions anywhere and at any time, and my instinct is that injunctions against peaceful protest had better have very, very good reasons or they shouldn't be granted.
The problem for me is that I don't really know if the injunctions in this case were really warranted. On the one hand, there's the freedom of speech point, which militates very strongly against any such injunction. Yet at the same time, we have to remember the situation on the ground in the access to abortion issue; it's not always easy to draw the line between legitimate, peaceful demonstration and intimidation which has no place in a free society.
Intimidation, real menacing intimidation, can be quite subtle, and depends very much upon context. Let's consider the circumstances. First, genuine violence has been carried out against abortion clinics, their staffs and patients. Moreover, not all involvement in violence is direct; there have been (and for all I know still are) websites that publish the names and home addresses of abortion providers with the implied intention of facilitating harming them. So the act of peacefully standing by an abortion clinic, expressing your disapproval, isn't necessarily going to be interpreted that way; there's also the unavoidable unspoken message: "I see you, I know what you're doing, and I think you're a murderer."
Second, consider the demographics of the targets of protests: women with unwanted pregnancies. A significant number are likely alone, feeling especially vulnerable and struggling with a very difficult life choice, and especially in need of privacy. Some may have parents or friends or family from whom they wish to keep this decision. In that context, even a genuinely peaceful protest can be especially intimidating.
I think what made me sensitive to this issue was thinking about a question in LARP ethics, of all things, several years ago. The question arose: is it ever okay to roleplay a rape scene? (I am assuming that the roleplayed scene would be described rather than physically acted out.) In general, I see LARP (when it's done well, that is) as an expressive medium, a legitimate form of theater in which no subject matter should be off-limits. However, one always needs to be sensitive to one's audience, and especially so in LARP where one's audience may be just one person. If I and a female player are off in the woods ostensibly seeking the lair of some ogre, and then when no one else is around I suddenly turn on my partner and roleplay an assault, I had better be very sure she knows and trusts me very well, and understands the artistic legitimacy of what my character is doing and why, because otherwise the unintended message she receives could be "Oh look. We're along in the woods, I'm bigger than you, and the thought of raping you just crossed my mind. Of course, it doesn't have to be rape..." That is absolutely not a message you want to send, and so I reluctantly concluded that, in some contexts, it's legitimate to limit certain kinds of speech, even when the intent is perfectly innocent.
I'm not entirely comfortable with that, but I can live with it, in part because other contexts exist where it is safe to discuss the same themes without realistic fear of being misunderstood. (Some people will misunderstand you no matter what, of course, but that can't be helped.) If one can't responsibly address issues of rape in a LARP, one can still write novels, essays, and discuss the topic in safe environments where no threat can reasonably be inferred.
And so the same seems to me to be true of the injunctions Ms. Gibbons violated. It does seem extreme, on the face of it, to prevent all protesting within a certain distance of the abortion clinic, and so I'm not fully comfortable with that. At the same time, I can see arguments for why such an injunction might well be reasonable, and of course she is still free to express her views anywhere else.
(I feel a need to contrast this with other so-called "free speech zones", by the way, where authorities prohibit any demonstration or expression of certain views within a certain distance of a motorcade route or conference site. I am steadfastly against those sorts of limits, and the difference there is about who has the power, and who gets to control the message. A lone young woman going to terminate a pregnancy has virtually no power, and is very vulnerable. The President of the United States giving a speech to campaign contributors doesn't fall into that category, and his purpose in clearing the streets of signs and t-shirts of contrary messages isn't to be shielded from intimidation, but to control the image: he looks better on TV when he appears in front of crowds of enthusiastic supporters than if there are signs of dissent.)
But as I said, I'm not really sure where I stand on this one, because I'm not fully convinced the original injunctions were fully reasonable. I can see reasons why they might be, but I'm uncomfortable about any limits on free speech. And that, at least, I think explains why there hasn't been as much of an outcry from civil liberty groups about Ms. Gibbons' case. Two important civil liberties are in conflict here, the right to seek lawful medical intervention without being intimidated, against the right to free speech. The case is nuanced, and it's not immediately clear which side someone who values both liberties should take.