Judge: Seattle abortion providers’ rights trump records law

In a win for abortion rights advocates, a federal judge in Seattle has issued a ruling temporarily protecting the identities of people working with fetal tissue at the University of Washington and elsewhere.

Using state public records laws, anti-choice activists hope to identify workers at clinics associated with Planned Parenthood and the UW Birth Defect Research Laboratory. Earlier this week, U.S. District Judge James Robart issued a preliminary injunction blocking the release of those records until the matter goes to trial.

Robart halted the release of the clinic workers’ information, finding that their work is political advocacy protected by the U.S. Constitution.

“Even if the research in which (the workers) participate or to which they contribute does not fall within the ambit of First Amendment protection, the groups with which (they) have participated or associated do engage in advocacy for the health and reproductive rights of women,” Robart said in his Nov. 15 ruling.

The Supreme Court, Robart continued, has previously found that the First Amendment can trump public records laws if the release of otherwise public documents will subject a person “to threats, harassment, or reprisals from either government officials or private parties.” The judge noted that Washington clinics have been firebombed, vandalized and blocked by those opposed to abortion rights.

Robart’s decision blocks the release of the workers’ names until trial. A trial date has not yet been set.

Abortion rights advocates celebrated Robart’s ruling.

“This crusade to stigmatize providers, politicize women’s health, and try to restrict abortion has gone on long enough,” said Janet Chung, an attorney with the women’s rights organization Legal Voice. “It’s past time to stop the attacks on health care professionals and the necessary care they provide.”

Robart’s decision comes after months of legal wrangling concerning jurisdictional issues. Now, though, it appears those involved in the dispute will turn their attention to the core issue – whether state workers and contractors involved in abortion-related matters are entitled to privacy.

Among those seeking the records is David Daleiden, a California man best known for secretly recording meetings with Planned Parent managers.

Daleiden’s videos were cut to give the impression that Planned Parenthood – the nation’s largest providers of women’s health services, including abortion – was selling fetal tissue. Abortion rights opponents used the eight-minute film to push for investigations into Planned Parenthood, including one in Washington that concluded in November.

In court filings, attorneys for Daleiden and another anti-choice activist claim to the men’s efforts are part of “a robust public debate” on “fetal-tissue procurement” that has prompted congressional inquiry. According to those filings, members of that Republican-led effort contend a “full investigation” will required broad questions “as to whether other value was received from … the University of Washington.”

Attorneys for the workers targeted by the activists note that Daleiden and his associates have “played a direct role in creating that political climate.” They’ve done so, the attorneys said, by promoting a fiction that fetal tissue collected during abortions is some kind of profit center for Planned Parenthood.

The workers’ attorneys not that Daleiden’s efforts sparked a series of investigations into unfounded claims that Planned Parenthood was illegally selling fetal remains. Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson conducted one such investigation at the request from legislators, and found the claims of misconduct empty and malicious.

“Unfounded allegations against Planned Parenthood are troubling,” Ferguson said in November. “They seek to discredit the organization and divert resources away from patient services, making it more difficult for Washington women to exercise their constitutional rights.”

In February, Daleiden and a staffer with the socially conservative Family Policy Institute of Washington filed a pair of public records requests with UW. Each demanded records related to the UW research lab’s relationship with Planned Parenthood; Daleiden is also seeking correspondence between several bioscience firms at the Seattle university.

Concerned that the records request could prompt the release of private information, attorneys representing employees of the university, Planned Parenthood and area hospitals sued in August to block portions of the release. The lawsuit would force UW to censor the workers’ names and identifying information before releasing the records.

Washington Family Policy Institute director Joseph Backholm previously said the public records requests are a continuation of Daleiden’s effort.

Backholm said his organization aims to “verify” the findings of the Attorney General’s Office investigation. He went on to surmise that state investigators stopped short of reviewing contracts between the UW center and purveyors of what he described as “aborted body parts.”

Though his Tuesday ruling does not settle the matter, Robart found that the workers’ claim is likely to succeed at trial.

“The court agrees that the public has an interest in understanding and obtaining information about the types of research and other work in which UW engages with public funds, but releasing (the workers’) personally identifying information would do little, if anything, to advance that interest,” ruled Robart, who was appointed to the federal bench in 2004 by President George W. Bush.

“The First Amendment does not allow state law to force individual (people) to choose between facing threats, harassment, and violence for engaging in … research at a public institution, and foregoing engagement with that public institution to avoid disclosure of personally identifying information and the related harassment and threats that such disclosure is likely to bring.

“This is exactly the kind of ‘chilling effect’ that the Constitution forbids.”

Attorneys for UW, the workers and the activists are expected to appear in court Dec. 2 to discuss scheduling matters.

Seattlepi.com reporter Levi Pulkkinen can be reached at 206-448-8348 or levipulkkinen@seattlepi.com. Follow Levi on Twitter at twitter.com/levipulk. 

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