In 2010, Scott Roeder was sentenced to 50 years in prison for the 2009 murder of Kansas abortion provider George Tiller. But that doesn’t mean he’s given up his hobby of threatening abortion providers. Roeder is now in a court battle with the Kansas Department of Corrections, arguing that they violated his freedom of speech rights when they disciplined him for making threats against Julie Burkhart, the woman who reopened an abortion clinic in the Wichita location where Tiller’s clinic used to be. Roeder got “45 days in disciplinary segregation with no outside communication,” reports the Topeka Capital-Journal, for comments he made during a phone call with David Leach of the radical anti-choice group Army of God.
Leach posted a recording of the phone interview on YouTube in 2013, which RH Reality Check reported on at the time. Here’s Roeder:
It is a little bit death-defying for someone to walk back in there… and reopen a murder mill where a man was stopped. It’s almost like putting a target on your back, saying, “Well, let’s see if you can shoot ME!” I have to go back to what Pastor Mike Bray said: If 100 abortionists were shot, they would probably go out of business. I think eight have been shot, so we’ve got 92 to go. Maybe she’ll be number nine. I don’t know, but she’s kind of painting a target on her.
Earlier in the call, Leach said that reopening an abortion clinic is “not the act of someone who values their own safety,” to which Roeder eagerly agreed.
Leach denied that the his nice-clinic-you’ve-got-there act was a threat, but the Kansas Department of Corrections thought otherwise. After all, what’s the purpose of putting that call on YouTube if not to intimidate Burkhart or perhaps even encourage the next Roeder to take matters into his own hands?
Roeder’s attorney, Billy Rork, has a somewhat different defense. “He didn’t threaten anybody,” Rork told the Capital-Journal. “He just was commenting to a private individual in a discussion that happened to be recorded.”
But if you listen to the recording, this argument falls a little flat. Leach opens the call by reading a public statement to Roeder, which Roeder praises. It’s only after Leach asks Roeder to make a “statement” of his own that Roeder shares his thoughts on how to scare abortion providers out of business by murdering 100 of them. In my experience, private conversations rarely involve the issuing of statements.
While Roeder cannot do physical harm to Burkhart on his own, the Kansas Department of Corrections has good reason to be worried about him inspiring others to violence. Anti-choice activists in the Wichita area relentlessly abuse Burkhart, seeing her as someone who stole their victory of shutting down Tiller’s clinic with a bullet. In May, MSNBC chronicled the extent of the harassment, which includes targeting Burkhart at her home by putting a sign in her yard that read, “Where’s your church?”—a not-subtle reminder that Roeder shot Tiller in his church. Roeder is a hero to the people harassing Burkhart. And threats are one of the forms of speech that fall outside of First Amendment protections (plus Roeder’s First Amendment rights are restricted in jail to begin with). Hopefully the court will disregard his argument.
Correction, Oct. 21, 2014: The headline on this post originally said that Scott Roeder threatened an abortion doctor from prison. He actually threatened the owner of an abortion clinic, who is not a doctor.