Detainment of San Francisco AIDS Activists Accused of Threatening Officials Divides Advocates Concerned About Free Speech
AIDS advocates are divided over the detainment of two San Francisco AIDS advocates being held in lieu of a combined $1.1 million bail on charges of harassing, stalking and threatening city health officials, AIDS researchers and San Francisco Chronicle reporters, the Los Angeles Times reports. Some advocates, while disagreeing with the men's tactics and message, fear that the case could set a precedent for limiting free speech and have signed an Internet petition protesting their high bail amount and the felony charges against them (Ornstein, Los Angeles Times, 12/28). Gay activist Michael Petrelis and David Pasquarelli, a spokesperson for the group ACT UP/San Francisco, which does not believe HIV causes AIDS, were arrested in November for allegedly making and encouraging harassing phone calls to city public health officials, AIDS researchers, reporters and their families. The men reportedly feared that statistics released this fall by the San Francisco Department of Public Health, which showed a tenfold increase in syphilis cases among gay men from 1998 to 2001, would be used to support an initiative to quarantine gay men who repeatedly engage in unprotected sex. Dr. Jeffrey Klausner, head of the health department's STD prevention unit, whom the men described as a "raving homophobe," had discussed quarantines as a method of HIV prevention in an earlier interview with the Washington Monthly, but never said that he or the department supported quarantine measures. Petrelis and Pasquarelli, who questioned the accuracy of the syphilis figures, saying that the statistics were "concocted to keep federal money flowing into the city," admit emailing the home phone numbers of Klausner and other officials to other activists and encouraging them to "barrage them with calls protesting 'Dr. Josef Mengele K-K-Klausner and his call for quarantining gay men with HIV.'" San Francisco District Attorney Terence Hallinan compared the phone calls to "act[s] of terrorism," and Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has asked the FBI to start a federal investigation into the harassment (Winter, New York Times, 12/24). Petrelis and Pasquarelli deny ever making threats.
An Excessive Punishment?
Since Petrelis' and Pasquarelli's arrest, about 200 people have signed an "open letter" on the Internet saying that the bail -- set at $500,000 for Petrelis and $600,000 for Pasquarelli -- is too high and that the charges against them are "overblown." William Dobbs, a New York AIDS activist who drafted the letter, said the bail is higher than that typically reserved for suspected murderers and rapists, but Reginald Smith, a manager in the San Francisco district attorney's office, said the bail is "consistent with standard judicial practice" and is warranted because the men continued to make threats after being warned to stop. Many gay and AIDS activists have signed the petition even though they disagree with the men's message and tactics. "I, like everyone I know, abhor most of the messages and tactics. However ... I fear the bullying of protestors," Tony Award-winning playwright and actor Harvey Fierstein said. Steve Ault, a "longtime" gay activist who helped organize the 1979 gay march on Washington, D.C., said he is "concerned that their civil liberties are being denied," explaining that "[w]hen the word terrorism is used to describe what they have done, I think it's way out of place." Judy Greenspan, a San Francisco-area prisoner rights advocate who received threatening calls from ACT UP/San Francisco, called the men's tactics "totally misguided," but signed the petition because she fears the case will be "used against all of us that protest the actions of the government."
Right Where They Belong, Others Say
Other activists say the men are getting exactly what they deserve, the Times reports. Kate Sorensen, a Philadelphia AIDS activist who was arrested and held on $1 million bond for protesting at last year's Republican National Convention, refused to sign the petition, saying Petrelis and Pasquarelli are "damaging the good work that real AIDS activists have done" through their criticism of prevention efforts. "I will fight for our right to demonstrate. I will fight for our right to free speech. I will fight this police state, but I will not fight for you," she wrote in an Internet message to the men (Los Angeles Times, 12/28). Petrelis' and Pasquarelli's trial will resume later this month (New York Times, 12/24).