By Lynne Bumpus-Hooper, The Orlando Sentinel
MELBOURNE — The owner of a women’s clinic is suing abortion protesters and two online services she accuses of providing information on clinic staff, doctors and patients.
Patricia Windle, owner of the Aware Woman Clinic for Choice, filed suit Monday in federal court against Meredith Raney, spokesman for Christians for Life, and 16 other protesters. Also named are CompuServe and America Online, which Raney used to obtain names and addresses of people who parked at the clinic.
The suit alleges that the clinic, its staff, doctors and patients have been targeted for years by anti-abortion activists who have used harassing and intimidating tactics.
The main tactic criticized in the suit is the copying of license tag numbers. The numbers are traced through the computer services so letters can be sent to car owners.
Such a practice violates privacy laws, said Roy Lucas, the attorney who filed the suit. Lucas filed a similar suit against abortion protesters outside Orlando and Ocala clinics in December and plans an additional suit for a clinic owned by Windle in West Palm Beach.
CompuServe spokeswoman Daphne Kent said she wasn’t aware of the latest lawsuit and couldn’t comment on it. The Columbus, Ohio-based company, recently purchased by America Online, has since stopped providing the information, Lucas said.
Raney would not comment on the suit specifically, but he said neither he nor any other anti-abortion activists had ever done anything but try to protect women and children.
“It’s been my intention and the intention of Christians for Life to present truthful information to patients. We have used inventive ways to do that,” he said Tuesday.
Windle says in the suit that Raney began videotaping the comings and goings outside the clinic at Dixie Way in north Melbourne in 1989.
She accuses him in the suit of going so far as to follow into a hospital with a video camera a patient sent to an emergency room for observation.
The other defendants are accused of stalking patients and doctors, creating posters and shouting epithets at staff.
Lucas said some of the phrases, such as “butcher,” “murderer” and “baby killer,” are “fighting words” not protected as free speech.
“These are words that are not protected by the First Amendment, just like hard-core pornography is not protected,” Lucas said.
Windle described the suit as the most aggressive in the country against abortion foes. Lucas said pulling all the facts together had been a formidable task.
“There may be as many as 1,000 or more separate acts of invasion of privacy. The activities of Meredith Raney in building a blackmail database have been outrageous,” he said.
The additional defendants were also criticized for their sidewalk counseling, a form of picketing in which counselors approach cars pulling into the parking lot.
Anti-abortion forces have maintained a house across the street from the clinic for years.
The U.S. Supreme Court upheld a 36-foot buffer zone between the two properties in 1994. But the buffer zone is rarely enforced, Lucas said, forcing the civil action.
Mark Hall, one of the abortion foes named in the lawsuit, said the counselors have moved out. The building is now the home of Pregnancy Outreach Inc.
“They’ve removed all their equipment, and sidewalk consulting is shut down as of Dec. 1. We asked all of the protesting picketers to move out,” said Hall, who has picketed and counseled outside the clinic for years.
Pregnancy Outreach provides free pregnancy tests, sonograms, prayer and a professional medical program, Hall said.
“We are educating moms about the development of their babies,” Hall said.
Wire services were used in compiling this report.