SAN FRANCISCO AIDS DEBATE LEADS TO CRIMINAL CHARGES
Case Against Protesters Tests Speech Limits
By Greg Winter
The New York Times 24 Dec. 2001
San Francisco -- With a shudder and a sigh, Dr. Jeffery Klausner of
the San Francisco Department of Public Health watched as the argument over
combating H.I.V. grew ever more caustic and intensely personal.
Posters portraying him as a Nazi were plastered on telephone poles. Internet
chat rooms filled with references to Dr K-K-Klausner and his nefarious plan
to quarantine infected gay men. Newspaper advertisements denounced him as a
"raving homophobe," bent on closing sex clubs and adult bookstores where the
disease could be spread.
Dr. Klausner, who is director of the department's program for sexually
transmitted diseases, might have taken it all in stride, he says, for the
sake of a robust political dialogue. But when critics started calling his
home, spewing obscenities at his wife, any pretense of a debate quickly gave
way to criminal charges.
"When the threats get physical, when they get violent, when they're not
attacking my data or my position but my family," he said, "that's when it
In a case that tests the line between political expression and personal
threats, two advocates for people with AIDS have been charged with more than
30 charges of harassing, stalking, and threatening nearly a dozen city health
officials, researchers, newspaper reporters and their families over the
Accused in the criminal complaint of besieging city officials with statements
like "we're coming to get you," David R. Pasquarelli, of the advocacy group
Act Up San Francisco, and Michael A. Petrelis, a longtime advocate for gays,
face more than 10 years in prison, if convicted.
Since their arrest last month, the two have been held in lieu of a total bail
of $1.1 million, which prosecutors say mirrors the severity of the charges,
but the defendants' lawyers denounce as exceptionally high.
"Why are they doing such overkill with these guys?" asked Stuart Blumstein,
Mr. Petrelis's lawyer, who maintains his client's innocence. If I wanted to
be completely cynical, I would say the people in power are getting special
Even in this city of political hyperbole, where differences of opinion
between policy makers and advocates often escalate into personal feuds, the
intimidating phone calls - and, to a lesser degree, the heavy response to
them - have shocked advocates and politicians, many of whom are former
Terence Hallinan, the San Francisco district attorney who boasts of his
rambunctious years as an activist before being elected to the City Council,
has likened the phone threats to an act of terrorism, while Representative
Nancy Pelosi, a liberal Democrat, asked the Federal Bureau of Investigation
to see if any federal laws were violated as well.
"Stalking is a form of mental terrorism," said Reginald Smith, a manager in
the district attorney's office, adding that the case would have been handled
just as aggressively before the Sept. 11 attacks.
Politicians and advocates have had such a visceral response, parties on both
sides of the debate say, because the threats began with an issue that deeply
concerns so many here; sexually transmitted diseases, particularly among gay
This fall, the San Francisco health department announced an alarming increase
in syphilis among gay men, citing an almost tenfold rise in the number of
cases from 1998 to this year. The increase led the department to believe that
gay men were engaging in risky sexual behavior than in earlier years,
confident that advances in medications would ultimately protect them.
While some used the statistics to preach safe sex, Mr. Petrelis and Mr.
Pasquarelli, and other Act Up members, took the figures to task, saying they
had been concocted to keep federal money flowing into the city.
The acrimony intensified when an interview with Dr. Klausner in The
Washington Monthly discussed coercive means of preventing HIV, including
quarantining infected men who repeatedly have unprotected sex, without
mentioning that neither he nor the San Francisco health department advocated
those methods. The author of the article, Andrew Webb, later clarified the
omission, but the rift had already formed.
Science writers at The San Francisco Chronicle also drew ire, members of Act
Up San Francisco say, because their articles included the controversial
figures, without questioning their reliability.
"I'm always happy to discuss that with anybody, but I'm not going to discuss
it with someone who calls my house in the middle of the night and threatens
my children," says Carl T. Hall, one of the three reporters listed as victims
on the criminal complaint.
"They told me they were going to hunt me down, that I was in their sights. I
don't know what that's got to do with the merits of our coverage."
The incident stands in stark contrast to the tenor of AIDS activism in recent
years. As recognition of the disease has widened and medications have
significantly prolonged patients' lives, much of the controversy and
outlandish tactics that once characterized AIDS activism in New York and
elsewhere has ebbed, giving way to bicycle rides and fundraisers to find a
Mr. Pasquarelli and Mr. Petrelis did their fair share of spilling fake blood
on researchers and booing their political foes, their lawyers say, but
they've never been convicted of a felony.
"He's oftentimes controversial, oftentimes loud and rude, but he's always
solidly within the First Amendment," Mark R. Vermeulen, Mr. Pasquarelli's
In an e-mail message to advocates, Mr. Petrelis listed the home phone numbers
of government officials and urged his allies to barrage them with calls
protesting "Dr. Josef Mengele K-K-Klausner and his call for questioning gay
men with HIV."
National AIDS workers, including members of Act Up, distanced themselves from
the tactic, in a petition, but also condemned the seriousness of the charges
against the two men and their high bail as a "clear message" that "activists
must beware." At a preliminary hearing last week, where prosecutors added
four felony charges and five misdemeanor charges against Mr. Pasquarelli,
Judge Perker L. Meeks, of Superior Court upheld the bail. The trial will
resume in late January.