Angel Dillard will stand trial for threats she made to a Kansas abortion provider, a federal appeals court ruled Tuesday.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit’s decision overturns a lower court ruling that held Dillard’s 2011 letter to Dr. Mila Means saying someone might place a bomb under her car was constitutionally protected free speech.
The ruling comes in the Department of Justice’s civil lawsuit against Dillard for violating the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act, the federal law that prohibits threatening or otherwise interfering with access to abortion clinics or providers.
Dillard is a notorious anti-choice radical with ties to Scott Roeder, the confessed murderer of Dr. George Tiller. In 2011, after Tiller’s murder, Dillard sent a letter to Means. At the time Dillard sent the letter, Means was preparing to start offering abortion services at the clinic of the late abortion provider. In the letter to Means, Dillard presented a “vision” of what Means’ life would look like should she start providing abortions in Wichita, Kansas. In that letter, Dillard explained how thousands of people from across the country were already scrutinizing Means’ background. Soon, Dillard promised, they would know “your habits and routines. They know where you shop, who your friends are, what you drive, where you live,” Dillard wrote. “You will be checking under your car every day—because maybe today is the day someone places an explosive under it.”
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Based on the content of that letter, the DOJ sued Dillard under the FACE Act. According to the DOJ, those statements concerning explosives were sufficient to constitute a threat against Means. But Dillard disagreed, arguing they were nothing more than an exercise of her First Amendment rights because the comments were not sufficiently specific to constitute a “true threat.” In August 2013, a federal judge agreed with Dillard and dismissed the claims against her ruling Dillard’s statements were constitutionally protected speech. The justice department appealed that ruling in October, and on Tuesday the Tenth Circuit finally issued its opinion.
According to the Tenth Circuit, the question of whether or not Dillard’s letter to Means constituted a “true threat” should be left for a jury to decide. The federal appeals court said the DOJ had provided enough evidence that a reasonable person could conclude the letter was a threat and therefore a violation of the law. “A reasonable jury could find that Defendant’s letter conveys a true threat, that she subjectively intended to threaten Dr. Means, and that she wrote to Dr. Means in order to intimidate her from providing reproductive health services,” the court wrote.
The court also rejected Dillard’s argument that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act bars any punishment based on Dillard’s “religious expression of her views about abortion to Dr. Means,” noting Dillard only first made that argument during the appeal process.
The ruling sends the case back to the lower court for trial. In the meantime, Dillard could ask the Tenth Circuit to reconsider its decision.