WICHITA | An anti-abortion activist accused of sending a threatening letter to a Kansas doctor filed a counterclaim Tuesday against the Justice Department, contending that the government's lawsuit against her has had "an unlawful chilling effect" on her free speech and religious rights.
The claims were made in the Angel Dillard's formal response to the complaint filed last month by the Justice Department under a federal law aimed at protecting access to abortion services. The government contends the 44-year-old Valley Center woman sent a threatening letter to Mila Means, a Wichita doctor who was training at the time to offer abortion services at her practice.
In a rambling letter she sent Means in January, Dillard wrote that thousands of people from across the United States were looking into Means' background.
"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."
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The Justice Department's Civil Rights Division sued Dillard under the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act. The government's lawsuit seeks a court order permanently prohibiting Dillard from contacting Means or coming within 250 feet of the doctor, her home, car or business. It also seeks damages of $5,000 for the doctor and a penalty of $15,000.
In her counterclaim, Dillard claims the government's conduct has intimidated and interfered with her First Amendment right to worship where she chooses because her church is located less than 250 feet from Means' office.
Dillard is seeking attorney fees, court costs, statutory damages of $5,000 per violation, as well as punitive damages to deter the government and its agents from further alleged violations of constitutional rights.
The government's "actions have had, and continue to have an unlawful chilling effect on Defendant's and others' right to free speech and free exercise of religion," according to the defense filing.
The Justice Department declined comment Tuesday on Dillard's filing.
U.S. District Judge J. Thomas Marten ruled last month that while Dillard's letter was clearly meant to intimidate Means, it wasn't a threat. The judge denied the government's request for a preliminary injunction at that time, calling the First Amendment the "absolute bedrock of this country's freedom" and ruling the letter was not a true threat.
Marten ordered both sides to present written briefings before he sets a hearing on an earlier defense request to dismiss the lawsuit. A hearing date has not been set.
The Justice Department has not yet responded specifically in a court filing to the defense request to dismiss the lawsuit.
No abortions have been openly performed in Wichita since an anti-abortion activist Scott Roeder executed Dr. George Tiller, one of the nation's few remaining late-term abortion providers, during Sunday morning services at Tiller's church in May 2009.
Last week, the government filed an amended complaint against Dillard that added quotes from an Associated Press story which had quoted Dillard during a 2009 interview talking about her friendship with Roeder and her admiration that he had followed his convictions.