Whats the difference between a political protest and organized crime? Not much, according to a Supreme Court ruling in January that many activists fear could be used as a bludgeon against advocates of unpopular causes. The high court ruled on January 24 that racketeering laws written to combat organized crime can be applied to activities of pro-life groups, even though no financial motive is present. While the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) law was intended as a weapon against mob crime, the courts decision left open the question of whether RICO can be applied to nonviolent civil disobedience as well.
"Under this decision, Martin Luther King Jr. would have been a racketeer," Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry said. "What Id say to the AIDS activists, the anti-nuclear groups, the animal-rights people, is get your affairs in order and line up, because youre next."
Because the case involved the volatile issue of abortionand controversial groups like Operation Rescuesome womens groups, in suing pro-life forces under RICO, have taken a position that, according to some First Amendment activists, may come back to haunt them.
"For most feminist organizations," columnist Nat Hentoff told Sojourners, "the abortion thing is so obsessive and so blinding to everything else involved in the issueto all the ramifications of itthat they do indeed support things that are going to boomerang and hurt them."
Meanwhile, pro-life organizers claimed to be undaunted by the decision, which sent the case back to a lower court for consideration. "Were not racketeers and we are not going to back down from our pro-life activities," said Joseph Scheidler, executive director of the Pro-Life Action League and a subject of the RICO lawsuit. "If anything, well step it up. Social protest is at the heart of what America stands for."