Two pro-choice Ivy League law professors who support Planned Parenthood are standing up for the free speech rights of David Daleiden and Sandra Merritt, two leading figures in the Planned Parenthood exposé videos released last summer.
In a stunning development, a Houston grand jury ordered to investigate Planned Parenthood found the abortion organization innocent, but charged Daleiden and Merritt of the Center for Medical Progress with a felony (tampering with government records) and a misdemeanor (attempting to buy fetal remains).
Sherry F. Cobb and Michael C. Dorf, professors of law at Cornell University and authors of Beating Hearts: Abortion and Animal Rights, attacked the charges as “a stunning act of legal jujitsu” that could “chill undercover journalists and activists everywhere.”
“We are pro-choice, and we support the important work of Planned Parenthood, but we find the prosecution of these citizen journalists, however self-styled, deeply disturbing,” Cobb and Dorf wrote for CNN.
The academics acknowledged that since grand jury proceedings are secret, the precise nature of the evidence is hidden, but they questioned the charges nonetheless. “The felony charge of tampering with government records relates to their alleged use of false IDs, and the misdemeanor charge of attempting to buy fetal remains seemingly overlooks the fact that Daleiden and Merritt were only posing as buyers to expose what they believed was illegal conduct by others,” Cobb and Dorf argued.
The professors defended the American tradition of undercover exposés, arguing that such stories “play a vital role in informing the American public of important facts that would otherwise remain hidden.” Cobb and Dorf championed Upton Sinclair’s muckraking 1906 novel “The Jungle,” and compared it Timothy Pachirat’s more recent “Every Twelve Seconds,” which documents the inside of a modern slaughterhouse. As animal rights activists, the Cornell law professors support undercover journalism to demonstrate the cruelty to animals, and must defend Daleiden and Merritt to be logically consistent.
“The Planned Parenthood case reveals that activists – and journalists – might… have to go to prison for undercover reporting if they violate any laws to gain access to the targets of their investigation,” Cobb and Dorf explained. They vehemently opposed this chilling of free speech.
“To reiterate, we decry the national campaign of defamation that Daleiden and his political allies have unleashed against Planned Parenthood,” they declared. “But we also oppose efforts to criminalize undercover investigations, regardless of the investigators’ ultimate motives.”