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In North Carolina today, an anti-abortion activist goes to court, charged with stalking and violating a new state law against residential picketing. His group put up wanted posters, targeting doctors who perform abortions. The group calls it free speech. Abortion rights activists say it's a threat.

NPR's Kathy Lohr reports.

KATHY LOHR: Flip Benham is a longtime anti-abortion activist, and earlier this year, he distributed Old West-style wanted posters which included the names, addresses and photos of four Charlotte doctors who perform abortions. Benham and his group, Operation Save America, took the posters to doctors' offices, and to their neighborhoods. He placed them on cars, and tacked them up on doors.�

Detective Milton Harris, with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department, says this violated the state's new law against targeting an individual at his home.

Detective MILTON HARRIS (Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department): By them handing out the fliers with the doctors' photos on it, that was an indication to us that they were actually singling those doctors out within that residential neighborhood, to protest.

LOHR: Harris says this is the first prosecution under the new law.�

Mr. HARRIS: The purpose of the law is to protect that person's identity against a lone-wolf assailant coming in there and possibly doing harm to that individual or their family.�

LOHR: One of the doctors targeted in the posters told me he fears for his life. He did not want his name used because of what he has seen happen to other abortion providers. He cites the murder of Dr. George Tiller in Wichita, Kansas, last year, and says he is now taking extra security precautions.�

Benham denies the posters are a threat.�He says they're a tool to inform the community about doctors who are performing abortions, an act that Benham considers murder.�

Mr. FLIP BENHAM (Anti-Abortion Activist): What we put on the poster were their pictures and then: Wanted by Jesus to Stop Killing Babies.

LOHR: Benham says the city is just trying to silence those who oppose abortion.�

Mr. BENHAM: We still live in America, and we do have First Amendment rights and - as we call them - responsibilities to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves.

LOHR: But abortion rights advocates say there's a clear history of violence against doctors featured in wanted posters. They're concerned because they haven't seen these posters circulated since the late 1990s, when several doctors were murdered.�

Ms. KATHY SPILLAR (Feminist Majority Foundation): This is not free speech. This is the equivalent of yelling fire in a crowded theater.�

LOHR: Kathy Spillar is with the Feminist Majority Foundation, a national group that tracks violence against abortion providers.�

Ms. SPILLAR: These wanted posters are communicating a threat to these abortion providers and essentially, they become targets of anti-abortion extremists willing to kill.�

LOHR: In a similar case back in 2002, a federal appeals court found abortion protesters did violate a federal law that makes it a crime to use force, or the threat of force, to prevent people from accessing clinics. The court found that wanted posters were not free speech, but a true threat. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case, which means the question is not resolved. Lucinda Finley is a law professor at the University of Buffalo.�

Professor LUCINDA FINLEY (Law, University of Buffalo): Whether the historical context of a wanted poster and subsequent act of violence by someone else other than the group putting out the wanted poster - whether that is enough to meet the very strict legal test for a threat, is a very difficult legal case to make.

LOHR: In this case, Flip Benham is on trial for violating state and city laws -charges that are easier to prove. He faces just a couple of months in jail. But abortion rights groups say they're pushing for federal, criminal and civil charges that carry much stiffer penalties.

Kathy Lohr, NPR News.�

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