In Melbourne, Fla., a little more than a year ago, an anti-abortion demonstrator stood on a ladder outside an abortion clinic. She shouted over a fence to a clinic employee inside:

"Ruth, Ruth! I pray that God strikes you dead! In the name of Jesus, I pray Jesus strikes you dead! I pray for your death in the name of Jesus."Was this free speech, which must be protected? Or was it wrongful conduct, which may be enjoined?

The Supreme Court will take one more look at the issue when it decides Madsen vs. Aware Woman Center for Choice. Lawyers argued the case April 20.

The facts are not significantly in dispute. The most militant anti-abortion group, Operation Rescue, mounted an effort to shut down the Aware Woman Center in 1991. Protests continued for months. Demonstrators blocked access to the clinic, harassed patients as they came and went, and generally disrupted the center's legal operation.

In September 1992, Florida's Circuit Judge Robert B. McGregor entered an injunction against the protesters' activity. The injunction proved ineffective. In December members of Operation Rescue attacked the clinic with butyric acid and disabled clinic doors with superglue.

In January 1993, reinforcements arrived in the form of fresh troops from IMPACT, an acronym for the Institute of Mobilized Prophetic Activated Christian Training. The protesters increased in number and volume; they tied up the clinic's telephones so no one could call in or out; they swarmed around vehicles seeking access to the clinic.

Dr. Frank Snydle and nurse Pamela Doyle suffered special abuse. Protesters once cornered the doctor in his hotel and screamed "child murderer" and "baby killer" in his face. At about this time an anti-abortion activist murdered Dr. David Gunn in Pensacola. Dr. Snydle resigned from the clinic.

A group of 30 protesters picketed nurse Doyle's home.

The Florida judge enjoined the protesters from "blocking, impeding, inhibiting or in any other manner" obstructing access to the clinic. He banned congregating, picketing, patrolling or entering any public or private property within 36 feet of the clinic. He created a zone of 100 yards around the clinic in which demonstrators may not physically approach any person attempting to enter.

From 7:30 a.m. through noon, during "surgical procedures and recovery periods," the defendants were enjoined from "singing, chanting, whistling, shouting, yelling, use of bullhorns, auto horns, sound amplification equipment or other sounds or images observable to or within earshot of the patients inside the clinic."

The protesters contend that the McGregor injunction violates their First Amendment rights of free speech and free association. Such terms as "non-threatening communication" are overbroad and vague. What is meant by "crowding" and "encouraging"? Because the injunction applies only to those who oppose abortions, it is content-based. The effect is to stifle the speech of Operation Rescue and IMPACT while leaving the activities of pro-choicers untouched.

The Madsen case has little to do with abortion itself. It is wholly concerned with a conflict as old as the republic. Where does permissible speech stop? And where does impermissible conduct begin?