A federal judge on Wednesday refused the government's request for a preliminary injunction ordering a Valley Center woman to stay away from a doctor who plans to offer abortions in Wichita.
The Justice Department filed a civil complaint against Angel Dillard, 44, after she sent what it alleges was a threatening letter to physician Mila Means. In denying the government's request, U.S. District Judge J. Thomas Marten said that while the letter was clearly meant to intimidate Means, it wasn't a threat.
"The First Amendment is the absolute bedrock of this country's freedom and I think the ability to express an opinion on a topic that is important to one — even if it is controversial — has to be protected so long as the line is not crossed and becomes a true threat. I don't think this letter constitutes a true threat," Marten said in his ruling from the bench.
Dillard wrote in her letter in January that thousands of people from across the United States were looking into Means' background.
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"They will know your habits and routines. They know where you shop, who your friends are, what you drive, where you live," the letter said. "You will be checking under your car everyday — because maybe today is the day someone places an explosive under it."
Marten ordered both sides to present written briefs before he sets a hearing on a defense request to dismiss the lawsuit, which was filed by the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division under the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act.
The lawsuit seeks a court order permanently prohibiting Dillard from contacting Means or coming within 250 feet of her, her home, car or business. It also seeks damages of $5,000 for Means and a penalty of $15,000.
Means and her office manager testified Wednesday. The defense did not present any witnesses.
Abortions have not been performed in Wichita since physician George Tiller, one of the nation's few late-term abortion providers, was fatally shot in May 2009 at his church by anti-abortion activist Scott Roeder.
Much of Means' testimony dealt with her heightened fears after reading a news story that cited a July 2009 interview with Dillard in which she said she had developed a friendship with Roeder while he was in jail awaiting trial for murder.
"With one move, (Roeder) was able... to accomplish what we had not been able to do," Dillard said at the time. "So he followed his convictions and I admire that."
Means testified that Dillard's letter led her to take extra precautions, such as parking her car where she could see it and taking it to a mechanic to get it checked out.
"The association with Scott Roeder magnifies the concern of the threat. But because of the words she used, I think the letter is threatening even without that," Means said.
Dillard's attorney, Donald McKinney, argued that prosecutors needed to show that Dillard intended to inflict harm and that nothing in Dillard's letter said she was going to hurt Means.
Marten told lawyers that the likelihood that the government will succeed on the merits of the case is "pretty questionable."
He also said he has received death threats himself, both while a lawyer and as a judge, and that he never asked that any of those people be prosecuted.
Outside the Courthouse, Means said she still plans to offer abortions and had set up a nonprofit organization to raise money to buy a building. Means said she has been unable to lease one due to pressure on prospective landlords from abortion protesters.
U.S. Attorney Barry Grissom said the government was "obviously disappointed" that the judge had a different interpretation of the letter.
McKinney said only that he agreed with Marten's opinion.