How RICO Threatens Free Speech
The Supreme Court's recent RICO ruling told the courts they can now apply the anti-racketeering law originally aimed at the Mafia to prolife protesters. It's a ruling that raises an ominous specter of state repression.
Let's picture a worst-case scenario.
Suppose Mother Teresa attends a prolife rally speaking about the sanctity of human life, and urging people to get involved in the fight against abortion. The following week, one of the rally participants takes part in a couple of peaceful blockades of abortion clinics and is arrested each time.
Immediately, the National Organization for Women swings into action, filing a lawsuit against Mother Teresa. What's the charge? Racketeering.
That, my friends, is how your First Amendment rights may be treated under the Supreme Court's new interpretation of RICO: It could turn people like Mother Teresa into mobsters.
RICO, you see, was written nearly a quarter century ago to deal with racketeers. Its full name is Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. Until now the statute was applied only to business enterprises. But the Supreme Court decision means RICO can now be applied to groups that have nothing to do with business. Like political protesters.
The irony is that protesters engaged in civil disobedience are already liable for punishment under existing laws, such as laws against trespassing. But RICO casts the net much wider: People who were not on the scene, and who have done nothing illegal, can now be swept up and charged with conspiracy.
For example, if your pastor urges the congregation from the pulpit to oppose abortion, he could be implicated as a
That's not at all what legislators intended when they wrote RICO into law 24 years ago. In fact, back then some legislators expressed concern that RICO could be used against Vietnam War protesters.
They were right to worry. The Supreme Court's new interpretation would have turned even The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., into a racketeer. After all, Dr. King encouraged civil rights advocates to "blockade" Southern lunch counters.
The mischief is that the RICO statute is much too vaguely written. The very idea that political protesters can be put in the same category as mafia dons would be laughableif it weren't such a grave threat to political free expression.
Abortion activists are crowing. They're under the impression that they can just whisper "RICO," and sidewalk protesters will scatter like pigeons.
But they shouldn't crow too soon. The general rule is that constitutionally protected rights supersede legislated restrictions. And the Supreme Court justices explicitly said this ruling did not even touch on potential conflicts with the First Amendment.
The case against the prolifers has been sent back to lower courts, where First Amendment issues will be clarified. The issue is still aliveand we should hope and pray that the courts will support the time-honored right to political protest and political expression.
RICO should not be used to lock up pro-lifers alongside mobsters. Or we just might see the day when we visit Mother Teresa behind bars.